By Gigi Wood

JOHNSON COUNTY—Campers may want to pack a few more items the next time they visit F.W. Kent Park this season: their laptops and tablets.

Starting this year, Kent Park, located just west of Tiffin on Highway 6, is offering Wi-Fi service to its campground, according to Brad Freidhof, a naturalist for the Johnson County Conservation Board.

Planning and installation began in 2010 for the service, which is provided through the Johnson County Information Technology Department, as part of the technology upgrades needed for the conservation department’s education center and department headquarters.

“A fiber optic line connecting the Conservation Education Center and the Conservation Headquarters ran past the campground, and the conservation department took the opportunity to provide an alternative communication link for campground visitors,” Mr. Freidhof stated in an email.

It may seem counterintuitive, but Mr. Freidhof says providing Wi-Fi allows campers to become more deeply connected to nature.

“Want to identify a bird, butterfly or beautiful flower growing next to your camper? The answer is only a click away,” Mr. Freidhof stated. “This amenity can also be an important aspect for campers utilizing the park though a stretch of rainy weather who want to catch a movie or watch their favorite television show.”

Apps such as Skype can also help campers stay connected to friends and family, he added.

Even for those who visit the park to get away from it all, including technology, having a nearby Wi-Fi connection can still be viewed a plus.

“Wi-Fi service should not be provided everywhere, but campground service allows campers to stay connected to the world with the ability to walk away at any time,” Mr. Freidhof stated. “The service range is limited, so campers visiting the beach, lake or taking a hike won’t be distracted by … downloading emails or message alerts.”

“Wi-fi can also help visitors locate information on geocaches found within the park, locate trail maps or find other visitor destinations nearby. It’s not for everyone, but the service is there.”

Nationally, adding Wi-Fi to state parks has been a growing trend for several years now, according to a report by the Council of State Governments. California, Kentucky, Ohio and Texas have led the charge in an effort to attract and maintain campers during an era when people are more connected than ever – some might say reliant – on their digital devices.

In Iowa, a small fraction of campgrounds offer some type of Internet service. In the Corridor, that includes Lost Island Waterpark in Waterloo, Lazy Acres RV Park in Urbana, Amana Colonies RV Park, Colony Country Campground and Scales Pointe Camping and Boating in North Liberty, and Sleepy Hollow RV Park and Campground in Oxford.

State and county parks in the area tend to not offer the service. George Wyth State Park in Waterloo and Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon do not.

“Internet access and reception is so limited in this area of the county that even cell phone reception is difficult,” Jim Hansen, state park ranger at Palisades, stated in an email.

Network and reception accessibility is an issue across the state when it comes to providing Wi-Fi at state parks, said Todd Coffelt, Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ bureau chief of state parks.

“The state does not actively provide Wi-Fi at its state parks,” he said. “It’s not a goal of the state to acquire or provide Wi-Fi.”

Improving reception and accessibility would be “financially cumbersome,” he added, due to Iowa’s plentiful, rolling hills.

That said, the topic of providing Wi-Fi at state parks has been a topic within the department for several years now, Mr. Coffelt noted. For much of that time, camp visitors were requesting that service. Requests have decreased during the past year, however, because of improved cell phone access.