Just over a decade ago, when private parks first began to invest in Wi-Fi systems, wireless Internet service was widely considered to be more of a luxury than a necessity.

After all, there weren’t that many RVers traveling with laptop computers, and if parks offered Wi-Fi service in the campground office or an open computer with a dialup modem that guests could use, that was sufficient for most campers.

Of course, that state of affairs didn’t last long.

While in the old days it was hard to imagine a single laptop computer inside every RV, today’s RVing couples and families are not only likely to have a laptop for every family member, but an assortment of iPhones, blackberries and other handheld electronic devices as well.

All of these devices have dramatically increased the need for park operators to offer Wi-Fi service, and have made Wi-Fi service one of the most critical amenities parks can provide.

Wi-Fi Trumps Pools And Even Restrooms

“It’s absolutely an expected amenity,” said Jim Ganley, co-owner of CheckBox Systems LLC in Gray, Maine. “For some folks, it ranks higher (in importance) than a swimming pool or restrooms.”

In fact, people have become so accustomed to using Wi-Fi at home that they expect to have the same kind of Wi-Fi experience when they travel. And they increasingly want to be able to use their electronic devices in the comfort of their RV. It’s no longer acceptable or convenient to go to the front office to use a computer

Today’s RVers not only want to check e-mail, but play games, watch movies and make voice over IP phone calls using Skype, said Eric Stumberg, president and CEO of TengoInternet in Austin, Texas.

Even cellular phones are more dependent on Wi-Fi now.

Remember the days when people were hoping or predicting that cellular networks would overtake Wi-Fi?

It didn’t happen.

The reason, according to Stumberg, is that it’s become too expensive for cellular companies to handle both the voice and data requirements of iPhones and other devices that are used to access Facebook and other websites at least as often as they are used to make actual phone calls.

AT&T alone experienced a 5,000 percent increase in mobile data traffic in the three years ending in 2009, Stumberg said.

As a result of these dramatic increases in mobile data traffic, Stumberg said cellular phone companies are now programming their phones so that they automatically search for local Wi-Fi connections, while saving the cellular connections for voice phone calls.

Campground Wi-Fi systems are feeling the impact. In fact, half of TengoInternet’s campground customers are now accessing the company’s Wi-Fi service with mobile devices, Stumberg said.

Bandwidth Requirements Grow Exponentially

Meanwhile, the continuing proliferation of Wi-Fi dependent cellphones and other mobile devices continues to increase the bandwidth requirements of campground Wi-Fi systems.

“A (Wi-Fi) system that could handle 100 campsites five years ago is now having to service five times the amount of demand,” Ganley said.

Parks are responding by purchasing more bandwidth from their local Internet service providers that are capable of connecting to the lower-powered Wi-Fi on mobile devices and transmitting higher bandwidth levels of wireless Internet service. Some parks are also adding more hotspots to make sure they have sufficient coverage throughout their parks.

But while Wi-Fi systems are available to transmit higher volumes of bandwidth, parks in remote locations sometimes have trouble obtaining enough bandwidth from their local Internet service providers. “The biggest challenge is being able to pull in enough bandwidth,” said Jimmy Small, TengoInternet’s director of engineering.

Meanwhile, the rising demand for Wi-Fi is creating growing business opportunities for Wi-Fi companies that specialize in the campground industry.

Ganley said CheckBox Systems now has provided Wi-Fi systems to about 1,200 campgrounds in the U.S. and Canada. “We’ve been having a busier year this year than any prior year,” he said. “Lots of parks that didn’t have Wi-Fi before are saying they can’t put if off any longer.”

This is largely because more consumers are demanding Wi-Fi service. But even among parks that already have Wi-Fi, consumers are paying close attention to the quality of that service and they will not hesitate to voice their opinions if improvements to the park’s Wi-FI service are needed.

“In reviewing written comments, I frequently see Wi-Fi issues, and the grades for overall satisfaction with Wi-Fi are the lowest rated of all amenities,” said Bob MacKinnon, president and CEO of Murrieta, Calif.-based GuestReviews.com. “Two-thirds of guests use Wi-Fi and they give it a ‘B’ average rating. All other amenities rate half a grade higher at ‘A-.’ ”

MacKinnon said the two most frequent comments involve the price and reliability of Wi-Fi service. “My interpretation of the reliability issue is that guests are expecting strong, reliable service with bandwidth just like home, and that may not always be the case in a campground,” he said.

CheckBox gives its customers the ability to order Wi-Fi equipment and install it themselves, which Ganley said is appealing to park operators who want to minimize costs. CheckBox also provides 24/7 customer service support as an additional option if parks want it.

Airwave Adventures uses a similar business model and has provided Wi-Fi systems for more than 200 parks, while providing 24/7 customer service support for about 75 parks.

TengoInternet, for its part, offers custom solutions including network design, equipment, installation, network management and or guest support and has a national customer base of about 1,000 parks, most of which receive 24/7 customer support from the company.