West Yellowstone

A sign alerts people that they are leaving Yellowstone National Park on Feb. 2 in West Yellowstone.

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Federal officials are taking public comment on a proposal to improve cell phone coverage in developed parts of Yellowstone National Park.

Park officials are weighing whether to issue or deny a right-of-way permit for construction of an underground fiber optic network now that an environmental review has been completed. They completed an environmental assessment in March after analyzing a permit application from Diamond Communications, a national wireless infrastructure company.

Interested members of the public may submit comments to the National Park Service about the environmental assessment until April 21. Officials will likely make a final decision this summer.

The Fiber Optic Cable Installation project proposes to place fiber optic cable underground along almost 200 miles of park roads. Workers would also remove five microwave radio reflectors from the park’s backcountry. No cell phone towers would be installed in the park.

Yellowstone’s network and telecommunications services rely on an antiquated microwave radio system, according to officials. Radio reflectors were first installed on mountaintops and in the park’s backcountry around 1980. Cell phone coverage in the park is spotty and unreliable.

If approved, the fiber optic project would not expand cell phone coverage in the park, but would serve to improve the quality of coverage in developed areas, officials wrote. About 8% of Yellowstone has cell phone coverage, the park service estimated.

The project would provide visitors, employees and emergency responders with better access to broadband internet, cell phone and computer network services, according to the park. Officials plan to ensure the project is compliant with the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws and policies.

If approved, visitors could experience traffic delays and lower speed limits on park roads from April until early November for the next three years as crews complete the project. Traffic delays could last for up to 30 minutes, according to park staff.

Diamond Communications would cover the initial costs of construction.

The fiber optic proposal aligns with Yellowstone’s 2008 Wireless Communication Service Plan, which guides management of wireless telecommunications in the park. Officials must balance efficient employee and emergency operations with preservation of the park’s wild character.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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