Satellites and cell phones in the Boundary Waters

There’s been some hype recently about SpaceX launching its first set of direct-to-cell phone satellites into space. This will allow cell phones with updated technology to be connected to the grid where cell phone tower coverage cannot reach. People camping and canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness may soon be able to communicate via phone calls, texting and Face Time. Their phones could help them check the weather, report an emergency and most importantly not lose their Wordle streak while in the BWCAW.

At Voyageur Canoe Outfitters we have rented out devices to our guests over the years. Some of them wanted it because of a health issue while others wanted to be able to check in on the health of someone at home. For some people taking along a device into the BWCA was the only way they were allowed to go on a trip.

In a blog post I wrote in 2009 I spoke about the then new SPOT locator. Since then cell towers have sprung up surrounding the Boundary Waters and some areas of the wilderness already have spotty cell coverage. Technology has also evolved with more satellites in the sky and more people relying on devices like Garmins inReach to communicate while in the Boundary Waters as well as other wilderness areas.

The implications of this improved technology are way more far reaching than just the Boundary Waters. According to this article “about 90% of the Earth lacks cell coverage, and for people in these “dead zones,” communication could be the difference between life and death.” The fact people could us their cell phones to communicate and they wouldn’t need a special device is really quite awesome. I don’t know about you but I have found many places in the USA where I don’t have cell phone coverage. Recently we drove the coast of Oregon and there were a number of places where there wasn’t cell coverage, even less than an hour from Portland we found ourselves without coverage. It always strikes me oddly that we had to have a cell tower at the end of the Gunflint Trail when there isn’t coverage in most of northern Minnesota.

What does this mean and what does it matter? Technology is a great tool that can help save lives in case of an emergency. It can direct help to the right location, tell someone how to perform CPR, warn users of dangerous approaching weather and much more. Just like all good things technology can be misused too. People may take risks they wouldn’t have taken if they knew they couldn’t be rescued. Some people will choose to use their phones in the wilderness. Just like some people choose to bring along musical instruments, radios, Kindles, camp lights, speakers and other items some folks find unnecessary.

The good news is you get to make the choice for yourself. You can decide whether or not to bring your cell phone into the Boundary Waters. You can choose to turn it on to check for a text from your loved one or leave it turned off in the bottom of your emergency kit just in case. You can Google for the right answer to a question to settle an argument or remain blissfully ignorant while out in the woods. Just like you have the choice to be on your phone where there is cell coverage or Wifi you will have that choice in the wilderness. It’s coming, ready or not. I know what I’ll choose and I’m thankful for the choice.