Island towns lag in connecting to new communications network

A fiber optic and microwave broadband network connects the Cape and Islands to improved communications services. — Photo by OpenCape

OpenCape, a non-profit volunteer organization formed to improve communications technology, has nearly completed a fiber optic and microwave network capable of dramatically upgrading the Cape and Islands digital connection to the world.

Cape Cod towns, schools, public safety organizations, and private enterprise are moving quickly to take advantage of the new network, which promises speed and capacity far beyond anything now available.

Though the speedy network will connect to Martha’s Vineyard by a microwave relay, OpenCape is barely a blip on the digital landscape for Island towns, despite repeated efforts to involve local officials.

The OpenCape plans provide for a microwave link to the Island, which will not furnish the same capacity or speed that a fiber optic cable would, but, according to an OpenCape official, the link will be at least 10 times the speed and capacity of anything currently available.

In a 2010 letter to town, school district, and county officials on the Island, OpenCape asked local officials to designate a person as a point of contact, so OpenCape could organize a working group to plan how the new technology could improve digital communication.

Not a single Island official responded, according to OpenCape chief executive officer Dan Gallagher.

State Representative Tim Madden organized an informational session on Martha’s Vineyard in April, asking towns to designate an Island representative to the OpenCape board of directors.

Island towns were poorly represented at the meeting, and those that did attend did not respond to the request to designate a board member.

The reaction to Mr. Gallagher at that meeting bordered on hostile.

“The real issue is how do we get fiber (optic cable) here,” said the Tisbury Department of Public Works director Fred Lapiana, at that April meeting. “We don’t want to lose leverage with a half baked system.”

Mr. Gallagher is puzzled by the lack of interest, on an Island where mobile phone communication is poor by any standard, where cable television penetration leaves some Island residents out of the loop, and police and fire departments have to scramble when the main dispatching system is down, because there is no adequate back-up.

“When people are confronted with these issues, we would be good people to talk to,” Mr. Gallagher said in a phone interview last week. “We would be trying to help them, rather than make money off them.”

By the end of January 2013, the new technology infrastructure will be in place, with or without the cooperation of Island towns. Other than a few public safety officials, no local officials have taken any steps to utilize it.

“I really have no idea,” Mr. Gallagher said when asked why there seems so little interest from Martha’s Vineyard. “Folks have an idea of what they need to do, or want to do. Maybe they’re not interested in outside opinions.”

Stimulus pipeline

OpenCape is funded by a $32 million grant from the federal government, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus fund. Another $8 million came from the state of Massachusetts, private construction and operating partners, and Barnstable County.

Under the terms of the grant, OpenCape is required to build a fiber optic and microwave network to proven underserved areas of the southeastern region of the state, with communications support for economic, educational, public safety, and government needs.

The conditions have specific requirements that apply to Martha’s Vineyard, designed to provide service where commercial providers are reluctant to build infrastructure, because it may not be profitable.

“Under our grant we must establish communication links on Martha’s Vineyard to deliver a large bandwidth connection between Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, to provide service to a regional shelter, and create an interconnection point that could offer the opportunity for a last mile service provider to offer retail services to Chappaquiddick Island,” Mr. Gallagher wrote in an email statement.

He explained that OpenCape is building a “middle mile” communications network. The organization will not directly provide services like cable television, phone, or Internet service, but it will provide, for a fee, the infrastructure for any commercial, nonprofit, or municipal venture that wants to provide the “last mile” connections to local households.

Construction and permitting plans are on target to connect the network to a private communications tower in Edgartown by the end of this year. That will satisfy the grant requirement to provide service to Chappaquiddick. From there, OpenCape will establish another microwave link to a soon-to-be constructed 105-foot tower at the Dukes County Communications Center near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. That will provide a new, faster communications pipeline for the communications center, which serves as a regional dispatch service for more than 60 law enforcement and government organizations on Martha’s Vineyard, and could be used for emergency shelters.

Representative Madden said part of the reluctance of local officials may be due to unrealistic expectations. “I think people came out of the gate disappointed in what is being created,” he said. “Because of that, they may not have paid attention to some of the other opportunities. There was an initial expectation that they would bring fiber to the Island, but it was never part of the discussion as something viable.”

Mr. Gallagher said fiber optic cable would be ideal for the Island, but OpenCape determined that the long and complex permitting process could not be completed within the time limits of the project, which must be complete and operational by January 31, 2013, under the terms of the stimulus grant.

No taker network

Island officials cite a variety of factors as reasons local governments have not embraced the project. Several Martha’s Vineyard officials say OpenCape has not done a good job of communicating with Island governments. Some have been soured by unrelated technology projects that promised giant technological advances, but fell far short of those promises. In some cases, technical infrastructure such as microwave relay equipment, even on existing towers, faces stiff opposition from local residents and permitting boards.

In Chilmark, executive director Tim Carroll explored linking the recently built fiber optics network for the up-Island distributed antenna system (DAS) to OpenCape. A large capacity connection to the Internet could enable projects like phone service for up-Island town buildings, reliable communications for emergency management, and consolidation of services with other towns.

“To have a very huge pipeline, that would be great for Internet and phone connections for our schools and libraries,” Mr. Carroll said. “There are a lot of places that are doing things like that. If we were tied in with the fiber optic network, you would only need one software program. You could aggregate accounting services, any service you want. Fiber, and joining OpenCape would position us to be ready for the future, without a lot of heavy lifting.”

Chilmark selectmen are reluctant to install microwave equipment on the communications tower on Peaked Hill, because of concerns from local residents, according to Mr. Carroll. “If nobody wants a microwave antenna in my town, then I can’t have it,” he said.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Bob Whritenour was a strong supporter of OpenCape in his former position as Falmouth town administrator, when the project began in 2009.

Though Oak Bluffs has not taken any steps to use the technology, Mr. Whritenour said he will open a dialogue soon to explore possibilities.

“It’s so important, so important,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We could be getting 100 times faster Internet, fast enough to do business. There has to be a little bit of investment from the town, but to have it connected to go to the outside world at that high speed, it’s absolutely the future.”

He said OpenCape will fill a substantial gap in Cape Cod’s communications infrastructure, which has lagged behind more populated areas, because communications companies view rural regions as less profitable than urban areas. He said the Island is even further behind than the Cape.

“It’s even more critical to support the economics,” Mr. Whritenour said. “It would be a tremendous economic and social benefit for the entire Island.”

In Edgartown, information technology manager Adam Darack is taking a cautious approach to the OpenCape project. “I want to see it working on the Cape,” he said. “There have been these potential projects before. I feel more communication is needed.”

Digital race

That reluctance on several fronts has put Island towns far behind their Cape Cod counterparts, which are moving aggressively to take advantage of the new infrastructure. A two-day summit in May drew more than 500 representatives of Cape Cod town governments, public service agencies, and private businesses to coordinate various projects and explore new partnerships.

Among several projects already well underway is a plan to tie all 15 Cape Cod towns and Nantucket into an online system for municipal permits, licenses, and inspections.

“We’re building an integrated network for the towns to work with each other,” Mr. Gallagher said. “Eighty-eight percent of the things people do at town hall are what we call express transactions.” He cited shellfish permits, business licenses, and tax payments as examples.

“That can all be done on line,” Mr. Gallagher said. “There is no sense in each town creating that capability, but when you do it with 15 towns like they’re doing on the Cape, it’s better. There’s no reason why we can’t connect the Island towns to the Cape system.”

He said a large-capacity communications network makes it possible to connect with state and federal agencies, saving time and money. For example, he said, a town could issue a building permit to a contractor online, and the application would determine automatically if the contractor is current with required state and local licenses and is qualified for the job.

The new technology infrastructure makes it easier for towns and public service agencies to get state and federal grants, according to Mr. Gallagher. The online permit and license application is funded by a $500,000 grant from the state Community Innovation Challenge program.