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Connect in nature: More state parks offer Wi-Fi hotspots for campers who can't get away from it all
[July 22, 2010]

Connect in nature: More state parks offer Wi-Fi hotspots for campers who can't get away from it all

Jul 22, 2010 (The Beaumont Enterprise - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- When a church group consisting of a gaggle of teen girls headed for a camping trip in Martin Dies Jr. State Park this week, their leader, Alicia Orsak, banned all electronic devices.

It wasn't a popular decision.

Orsak, a Kirbyville teacher, said without the ban the girls would spend too much time texting each other or boys -- the accusation was greeted with a chorus of denials from the teens -- and not enough time communing with nature.

Orsak, however, asserted her prerogative to use her laptop to connect with the Internet during her stay in the woods.

"I just can't give it up!" she said with mock dramatic emphasis.

Many campers in the digital age ask for wireless Internet service to keep them in touch even as they "get away from it all." Increasingly, state, national and private campgrounds find it good business to give the customers what they want.

Martin Dies has limited Internet service, only accessible near the headquarters building.

Terry Lamon, the park's office manager, said campers with their laptops at a picnic table outside the building is a common sight.

The park is one of 58 Texas state parks to provide wireless in at least one Internet "hotspot" in the park, said Michael Crevier, director of business management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The 58 parks contain 114 total "hotspots," where park visitors can use their portable electronic devices to get online.

Orsak agreed that the Internet could be a distraction to the wilderness experience -- but properly used, it could enhance it.

She explained that she used the Internet to check on the weather and to help educate the teens.

Youth camp leader Catelyn Gentry said she'd gotten online the previous evening because she was curious to learn about the park's namesake, Martin Dies Jr.

(Forthoseofyouwhodon't know, Dies was a Texas politician with ties to Beaumont and Orange who created a committee that investigated un-American activities, such as Communism, before and during World War II.) But Orsak's main objective in staying connected while in the woods is to keep in touch with her husband, who is working in the African nation Nigeria.

That alone is important enough to justify going online.

"It's your connection to the world," Orsak said.

In 2004, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department began to experiment with providing Wi-Fi in five of its parks.

"We did originally start with a test because we saw a need for it," Crevier said.

Giving the RV crowd a way to stay in touch with family and friends as they moved from place to place filled an obvious need.

But the department soon discovered another.

"At parks in areas where universities are located, there were a lot of people who came to the park to do class work," Crevier said.

These customers often purchased annual passes for what was mostly day use of the parks, Crevier said.

The department initially hired Tango Internet to provide Wi-Fi, but when it proved to be a very popular service, the agency took over the job in-house.

Private campgrounds need to provide wireless Internet to stay competitive, said Betty Atchison, office manager of Double Heart Ranch in Jasper.

"People more or less expect it -- they look for it," she said. "... People would take Internet over TV -- it's a necessity." Greg Brown, operations manager for Cypress Lakes Resort near Cleveland, agreed that wireless Internet is a basic service customers require.

"It's just how people communicate today, through emails -- the Internet has replaced so many things in our life," he said. "It's our mini little world." Having Internet access can give people the peace of mind they need to enjoy their vacations because they know they can be reached in case of family or work emergencies.

However, the resort, which opened in May, has not yet been wired for wireless.

"We're a work in progress," Brown said.

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