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Fairfax Campground Brings Wireless to the Wilderness

By David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page C01

Mark Kaplan sits on a picnic table under a clear blue sky on the shore of Lake Fairfax, the serenity of a nearby pine forest making the crisp, wintry day all the more peaceful.

But instead of taking in the scenery, Kaplan is checking his e-mail on a laptop. Logging on to the Internet is possible here -- far away from telephone jacks or outlets -- because the park has become the first in Fairfax County to install wireless service.

Mark Golino, assistant manager at Lake Fairfax Park, left, and Mark Kaplan of LinkSpot talk near a sign advertising the wireless Internet service to RV. (Photos Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

Now mothers can work while they watch their children play in the activity pool, park officials said. Fathers can send instant messages to relatives when their kids hit home runs on the softball fields. Couples can keep track of e-mails on romantic boat rides on the lake.

The park is part of a nationwide movement to light up Mother Nature with wireless Internet access. Kaplan, a founder of Reston-based LinkSpot Networks Inc., which installed the equipment for Fairfax, said the company has set up similar systems in 75 campgrounds and parks in 25 states across the country. It also is in discussions with the National Park Service and a half-dozen state park agencies, including Virginia's, he said.

Kaplan dismissed the notion that people would lose quality recreation time by bringing their computers to a park and fixing their eyes on glowing screens rather than the glorious vistas around them.

"If I couldn't bring my laptop, I would have to stay at the office and get the work done," he said. "Now that I can bring the laptop, I can do 30, 40 minutes of work and then I can play the rest of the time."

Bringing Internet access to Lake Fairfax Park was relatively inexpensive, Fairfax officials said. The county paid $2,850 for the installation of the equipment, and the service costs about $260 a month. Visitors are charged about $3 to log on for an hour or can pay more for the day or week. The park gets 20 percent of revenue.

The phenomenon is driven by advancements in mobile homes. Many of these RVs include digital TVs, luxury kitchens, plush carpets and satellite dishes. And their owners increasingly are demanding Internet access as they spend as much as a week at local campgrounds.

"We get e-mails from all over the country, and they want to know what amenities we have at our parks," said Judy Pedersen, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Park Authority. "And very often one of the questions is, do we have Internet service available?"

Park officials said they are looking into installing wireless access elsewhere. "Certainly if it works at Lake Fairfax, I don't see why it wouldn't work at our other campgrounds," Pedersen said.

LinkSpot Chief Executive Alan S. Kobran said people who live in mobile homes need Web access. "If you have a house on wheels, you will need to stay connected," Kobran said. "And that's what [occurred to us]. How do you get people connected if they need to pay their bills or if they need to communicate?"

Privately owned RV campgrounds, such as Cherry Hill Park in College Park, have had wireless Internet access for years. Public parks are offering the service to keep up.

Even with its new technology, Lake Fairfax Park doesn't match up with other places when it comes to amenities, said Miles Whitnah, owner of a luxurious, $120,000, 38-foot RV. He is staying there because its campground charges a lower lodging fee and is located minutes away from his grandchildren's home in Reston.

"We usually look for places that offer full amenities -- cable TV, sewage, you know, the whole works," said Whitnah, who also owns a home without wheels near Orlando.

"We usually don't stay in these conditions. This place is pretty rustic," said his wife, Vi.

But in the trailer next door, another person said he purposely does not carry a laptop when he travels and has no interest in trying out the new technology.

"I try to get as far away as possible from that stuff," he said. "That's the whole point of going away to a place like this."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company