It’s time to get the deal done and build the DAS system


You’ll find in the news columns today an update on the effort to build a distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve cell service in two of the up-Island towns. The effort began as a plan to end spotty coverage in all three towns, but West Tisbury dropped out, pleased with the quality of service in its town, or at least displeased with the promise of the three-town partnership.

From before the beginning of the partnership, the challenges were considerable, not least the objections in some quarters that the short but more numerous antennae the system requires would be disfiguring and that the emanations of cell service communications pose health risks, but also the generalized suspicion that the private company proposing to create the system would certainly put one over on us. Then there were the issues of municipal cooperation, varying assessments of service need by the residents and officials of the three towns, and, hardly least of all, the terms of the contract.

For Vineyarders, it’s a rich and familiar stew of the rational and the irrational, the large influence of small interest groups, the distrust of advice from outsiders, and the perverse emotional rewards of extensive contention — no wound too minor to inflict — at which Islanders excel.

Communities with less refined environmental sensibilities might have gone with a few tremendously high towers capable of insinuating service into the most remote spinneys and messuages of the Vineyard. Vineyard sensibilities, however, run to immense, wheeling turbine towers that harness the wind, but not to communication towers that make talking and texting and business and emergency messages convenient, happening things. There is no explaining it.

But, cell service is the law, and the law allows for frustrating messing about with the extension of adequate cell service, but not the outright rejection of it. So, the word adequate allowed for the choice of a DAS of many short towers rather than a tall-tower solution with fewer structures and better reach. That was the Vineyard choice, and the deal, though not the construction, is almost done.

What’s missing is an agreement with NSTAR that would allow the DAS contractor to use the power company’s utility poles to string the fiber-optic cable that will be the backbone of the DAS. The power company and the tower company have been unable to agree on the terms, the engineering, and who pays what.

In a letter earlier this month to NSTAR, representatives of Aquinnah and Chilmark explained the need in compelling terms: “Many citizens,” they wrote, “rely solely on wired phone service. Public safety, however, relies heavily on E911 communications from cellular service subscribers to provide rapid response to emergencies (e.g., car accidents, stroke, and heart attack victims). In some cases this can make the difference between life and death.”

The contorted, attenuated, peculiarly Vineyard history of this effort does not diminish the imperative that is the subject of the letter from the town officials. That imperative must not escape the attention of NSTAR officials.

Better cell service is badly needed, especially in Aquinnah and Chilmark. To get it done, and done before summer — delays now will lead to suspension of construction work during the busy summer, and another high-impact, high season will pass — demands wholehearted and speedy cooperation between NSTAR and American Tower Company, the DAS contractor.

Both describe their efforts to get the deal done as progressing. Residents of the two Island towns need the discussions to end and construction to begin.