Up-Island waits and waits for wireless service

A medical emergency in Menemsha last month highlighted the urgency of a two-town project to bring reliable wireless service to Chilmark and Aquinnah. A man collapsed and the first reaction by those near him was to reach for their cell phones to call for an ambulance — a futile effort in a section known for a lack of wireless signal.

Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll, the point man in an effort to establish a distributed antennae system (DAS), ran to his nearby vehicle and used a police radio to call for help. Once complete, DAS is expected to provide service to all areas wireless carriers do not now reach including Menemsha Harbor.

Mr. Carroll is working with his counterpart in Aquinnah, selectmen in both towns and American Tower Corporation (ATC) to eliminate the wireless black holes that exist across Chilmark and Aquinnah. The last hurdle is an agreement with NSTAR that would allow ATC to use the power company’s utility poles to string the fiber-optic cable that will be the backbone of the DAS system.

DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes (RAN) connected to small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for that specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less, the DAS appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.

ATC and NSTAR had been unable to agree on the scope and cost of the work needed to prepare the poles for the fiber-optic cable. Mr. Carroll said some of the issues relate to who will bear the cost to replace aging poles and disagreements over engineering requirements.

Mr. Carroll said that initially NSTAR provided ATC with a cost estimate for the work that was out of the ballpark. In part, because NSTAR insisted that ATC bear the full cost to replace dated poles that in all likelihood already needed to be replaced because of age or height.

Public safety

Mr. Carroll, Adam Wilson, Aquinnah town administrator, and selectmen attempted to break the logjam with letters sent March 4 addressed to Thomas J. May, NSTAR chief executive officer under the heading “NSTAR collaboration to address citizen and public safety communications on Martha’s Vineyard.”

“The (DAS) project brings much-needed communication services for residents, visitors, and public safety responders in our community,” the letter said. “The success of this project depends on the use of NSTAR distribution assets, as well as the efforts of NSTAR personnel, so we wish to thank you in advance for your support and participation.”

The letter described the need for wireless service. “Many citizens 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 letter described the decision to contract with ATC to install a DAS in an effort to maintain the aesthetic beauty of the community environment. “We consider NSTAR a partner in this project,” Mr. Carroll wrote, “and appreciate your attention, support and the collaboration of the NSTAR team as we work through the make-ready review. Our hope is to have the network operational in time for peak summer traffic.”

That timetable may be overly optimistic. Currently, representatives of NSTAR and ATC are surveying the extensive pole network to assess the extent of work needed and the number of poles that must be replaced because of age or condition.

In a telephone conversation Monday Mr. Carroll said he had received no response to the letter but he said that all sides appeared to be working together to resolve any outstanding issues. Asked when the system might be in place Mr. Carroll said, “If things go well we could be turning on in June.”

Any delays could push the activation date to the fall. There is a Memorial Day weekend deadline after which pole work that could interfere with summer traffic must be put off until the fall.

Make ready

Alex Gamota, ATC project manager told The Times the company is ready to begin stringing wire. Where no poles exist ATC would run the wire underground and erect a pole to mount an antenna.

“We are hoping to start deployment in the next few months,” Mr. Gamota told The Times in a recent telephone conversation.

Mr. Gamota downplayed any hurdles. He said both NSTAR and Verizon, which must also move some wires, have been good to work with and they are now engaged in the preplanning process. “It is our goal to get operational as soon as possible,” Mr. Gamota said without providing a specific date. “A lot depends on when we finish this preplanning process.”

The wireless signal would originate from a hub station placed at the Chilmark landfill. ATC has a contract to lease space to AT&T and is seeking other wireless carriers.

“We want to serve every carrier and we are actively talking to all of them at this point,” Mr. Gamota said.

Mike Durand, a spokesman for NSTAR, provided an update on discussions with ATC in an email to The Times. He said that ATC and NSTAR participated in a conference call last week and discussed a strategy designed to reduce installation costs.

He said the two companies would meet soon to review and agree upon NSTAR guidelines and specifications. “NSTAR will then provide ATC with a schedule for completing the second audit,” Mr. Durand said. “We will continue to work together to reach agreement and move this project along.”

Aquinnah launched the effort to create a DAS system in December 2005 as a way to bolster the town’s defense against cell towers and lawsuits brought by cell phone companies under the Telecommunication Act of 1996 (TCA), a federal law that limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. Chilmark and West Tisbury later joined the effort.

But plans for a tri-town agreement were put aside when West Tisbury town officials and residents disagreed about permitting requirements and the extent of the wireless communication benefits the system would provide in a town with existing towers.

West Tisbury pulled out. Chilmark and Aquinnah forged ahead.

One solution to poor Up-Island wireless communication presented itself years ago, but public attitudes concerning cell phones were quite different. In 1999, Chilmark voters supported a request by public safety organizations, including the Coast Guard, to place antennas on Peaked Hill in order to improve radio reception. Due to existing conservation restrictions, placing the antennas required a special act of the state legislature.

At the time, voters expressed opposition to allowing cellular companies to share antenna space and language was inserted specifically barring commercial use.