Almost two months ago, the American Tower Corporation (ATC) activated a new distributed antenna system (DAS) in Chilmark and Aquinnah, an area previously known for its lack of cellular service. Although AT&T customers have experienced improved service in some areas, other areas still lack full wireless coverage.
“I have anecdotally heard of places it doesn’t work at all,” Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said, “But I haven’t personally come across them.”
In late May, 11 nodes, or antennas, were switched on in Chilmark and four in Aquinnah. “They are looking to add some more nodes next year, which should improve service,” Mr. Carroll said.
Adam Wilson, Aquinnah’s town administrator, said that the radius of these nodes is about a quarter mile, depending on terrain and foliage. He said that there were supposed to be eight nodes installed in Aquinnah, but only four are currently in place.
DAS is a series of radio access nodes (RAN) connected to small antennas set atop telephone poles, or poles erected specifically for DAS, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Despite the low range coverage of individual nodes, DAS appeals to those communities that have poor cellular service and remain resistant to a tall conventional cell tower.
“From where I sit in town hall, the coverage has improved. I don’t know if there are any what I would call dead spots,” Mr. Wilson said. “Some people have called, but the areas have been scattered.”
Mr. Wilson said expectations may have been too high. “These nodes are a supplemental system. Some people were anticipating that this system would not supplement, but instead be the solution to the problem of wireless coverage,” he said. “They were expecting the system to work perfectly, and their receiving capability to go up exponentially. But that only happens if you are close to one of the nodes.”
Mr. Wilson explained that another problem with the system itself is that it is only operating with a contract with AT&T. Until other wireless providers join in, the DAS system does not provide a solution for everyone.
In order to encourage other wireless providers, such as Verizon, to install their services, Mr. Wilson has encouraged citizens to continuously call these companies directly and voice their complaints.
Although the DAS system has not fully solved the problem of wireless coverage in Chilmark and Aquinnah, the improvement of wireless gives a feeling of security. Mr. Carroll said, “It’s very nice to be able to call if you need help.”
Mr. Carroll told a story about an emergency that took place in Menemsha before the installation of the DAS system. He and the Coast Guard had to “make a mad dash” in order to call for assistance. Now, standing in the same spot, he said he feels secure that he would be able to make a call in a similar situation in faster time on his cell phone.
Brian Cioffi, Chilmark police chief, said that the system seems to be working. “No one has complained to me,” he said.
“Its better than not having cell coverage at all,” Jim Newman, Aquinnah selectman, said, “It doesn’t meet my expectations in terms of coverage for the whole town. I don’t get it at my house, even though I have AT&T. But, I am very happy that we have it. It’s better than nothing.”