Tents, s'mores, and a laptop: parks go online

Texas becomes first to offer free Web in the woods, pleasing some but angering nature purists.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Every spring and fall, bird watchers flock to state parks along the South Texas coast to watch the migration that makes this area one of the world's best birding sites. Books and printouts in tow, they slog through mud flats and marshes toward the call - or chirp - of the wild. But starting Jan. 1, they can leave their books at home, and simply turn on their laptops to check: Was that really a Black-throated Gray Warbler? And while I'm online, any e-mail to read?

On Jan. 1, Texas will become the first to provide wireless Internet service at state parks, with five of them hooked up in a new pilot program. In one sense, it's a natural extension of the tech revolution, bringing Internet access to a vast library of plants and animals. But the project also probes what it means to be connected and how far Americans will tolerate technology's encroachment. Where, some ask, is the "wild" in wireless?

"Obviously there is a demand for connectivity that some people just don't want to turn off," says John Horrigan, director of research at the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

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Wireless access, also called Wi-Fi service, is springing up almost everywhere, from America's campgrounds and coffeehouses to its ski slopes and cruise ships. Even the Capitol Mall in Washington is a "hot spot."

In all, more than 100,000 locations around the world have Wi-Fi service, and the number is rising daily. In fact, about 70 percent of laptop computers are expected to have Wi-Fi capability by 2007, according to Gartner, an information-technology research firm.

So far, the vast majority of users are conducting business, and have both the tools and the ability to pay the average daily service fee of $10 to $20, says Phillip Redman, a research vice president at Gartner. But there are also a growing number of free Wi-Fi hot spots, which make the cost of connectivity irrelevant. And with proliferating access and declining price, the user's physical location has become less important than ever before.

Take Angela and Richard Hoy. This summer, they began traveling the country for weeks at a time in their RV.

Mr. Hoy says they plan their route around campgrounds with Wi-Fi, and have used it to run their Internet business. Their four children, who are all home schooled, need to be online as well.

For such "digital nomads," connectivity enables travel with a purpose and the ability to maintain links to the rest of one's life. But what about those who just want to get back to nature - and shudder at the thought of a woods where Thoreau could go online?

"It's true that our agency's mission is to get people into direct contact with the world of nature and the great outdoors, and the vast majority of our visitors come here to get away from cellphones and pagers and other technical gadgets from the urban world," says Tom Harvey of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "But there is a certain niche audience that might find the service useful."

Birders, for example. And their distant relatives, the RV snowbirds. In fact, says Mr. Harvey, the idea came from park visitors themselves - especially those exploring the Texas coast. The service will be free in the five Texas parks for three months; then TengoInternet, the wireless provider, will charge about $15 a day.

The company's president, Eric Stumberg, says Wi-Fi parks and campgrounds allow for a more interactive experience of an area. By setting up camp and logging in, a person can learn about the area's history, its plants and animals, and upcoming events.

It also helps those who want to stay connected to family and friends by sending e-mail and digital photographs. "It adds a dimension to your trip," says Mr. Stumberg.

But there are problems with putting Wi-Fi in remote places, experts agree, the biggest of which is terrain.

Mountains, trees, and other foliage tend to diminish and scatter the Wi-Fi signal in unpredictable ways, says Hoy. "Hence, in order to have good coverage, you need to put antennas all over the park."

That may concern environmental groups - especially if the service intrudes on more primitive areas. But in Texas, many of the state parks are already fairly well developed, with plenty of campgrounds and RV accessibility.

"Frankly, when I spend the night in some of our state parks, I'm more concerned about the noise from RV generators and people's portable TVs and radios," says Ken Kramer, director of the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. "At least Wi-Fi will be fairly quiet and less intrusive than some of these other things."

That said, he agrees that balance is needed. "I don't want to downplay the notion that technology is beginning to intrude more and more into ... places where many people go for peace and quiet. But we have to acknowledge that society is evolving and the Internet is part of our everyday living experience."

In fact, Mr. Kramer can see himself using the service in some of the state parks when it is operational, and he says the Sierra Club is a very electronically connected organization.

But as with any new technology, experts say, it's up to the user to keep things in perspective.

"Many people don't realize how important it is to manage those kinds of interfaces until after the fact," says Mr. Horrigan at Pew. "So maybe next time 'round, they will leave that Blackberry or laptop home on the family vacation."

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