Conflict, confusion, continue in Chappy-Comcast deal

The On Time ferry is a reliable connection for Chappy residents. — File photo by Susan Safford

Members of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) gathered this past Saturday at the Chappaquiddick Community Center for their August annual meeting. While the well-attended meeting was not as packed as the standing-room-only July annual meeting — the CIA conducts two annual meetings every summer — the hot topic at both was the same: the controversial offer from Comcast that could bring cable TV and, most importantly, reliable high speed Internet to Chappy for the first time.

The most time-sensitive condition of the deal requires that at least 270 homes, half of the “dwelling units” on Chappy as defined by the Comcast/Edgartown deal, must sign a commitment letter and have it on file at the Edgartown National Bank by October 1 of this year.

If they fail to reach this benchmark, Chappy residents will have to wait 10 years for another shot at reliable high-speed Internet, cable TV, and land lines that don’t crackle and buzz when it rains.

A long time to get to this point

The battle to wire Chappy began in early 2011, when negotiations began for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, Comcast said it had no interest in serving the remote, sparsely populated island on an island. Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block to renewing the Island-wide deal. The CAB and Comcast extended the contract several times over the long and increasingly fractious negotiation. In December 2011, Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby refused to attend any more meetings until Chappy was included in the conversation. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy, and finally, in late January of this year, the selectmen from the six towns endorsed a 10-year, Island-wide agreement with Comcast.

Communication breakdown

At the CIA annual meeting in July, it was apparent that the Comcast commitment letter had created a great deal of confusion.

Many people were put off by the brief missive which stated that the owner of the residence, or “dwelling unit,” must sign up for for two years of basic cable and pay an Aid in Construction Fee (AIC) of at least $2,139.

The steep price of admission aside, many attendees were concerned, to put it mildly, that the AIC fee locked them into the open-ended liability. However, Comcast senior manager of government and community relations Mary O’Keeffe was on hand at the July meeting to clear up the broadly held misconception.

“Sending in this letter is only phase one of the process.” said Ms. O’ Keeffe. “Then we go out and survey each property that sent us a letter. Comcast will then get back to everyone with what the construction cost, if any, will be. Until you know what the construction cost is, you may or may not want to change your mind, and that’s fine. We won’t start construction until we get 270 payments, but the first step is to get 270 commitment letters back, to allow us to start surveying individual properties,” she said.

Ms. O’ Keeffe’s clarification dramatically changed the tenor of the meeting. Afterwards, many of those previously opposed said they saw the Comcast letter in a new light.

The July meeting was a big win for the pro-Comcast contingent. CIA members Woody Filley, Dennis Goldin, Lionel Spiro, and President Roger Becker went on an aggressive grassroots campaign to capitalize on their momentum.

But at the start of the August meeting last Saturday, only 77 official votes were on file at the bank.

Stumping for bandwidth

Woody Filley, member of the CIA technology committee, opened the meeting with a mea culpa. “Let me apologize to all of you for bombarding you with calls” he said. “I know we’ve called so much, some of you have us blocked, but just help us out, send in your letter and we’ll stop bothering you.” On a more serious note, he said “We have 59 days to reach the magic number of 270. We’ve got our work cut out for us. Our decisions today don’t just affect us, they affect the whole island, this generation, and future generations. I work at the high school. Kids need access to the Internet. If they don’t have it, they’re at a disadvantage. If you want to have a business on Chappy, you’re at a disadvantage. Even property values can be increased if we improve our infrastructure.”

“We’ve only gotten this far because the town, and Pam Dolby, stepped up on our behalf,” said Mr. Becker said to the assembled. “Remember, if this deal with Comcast doesn’t happen, Chappy WISP will have a monopoly. I don’t think we want that. And if you think you’re fine with DSL, think again. There’s a good chance DSL won’t be around for the next 10 years.” At the July annual meeting, local entrepreneur Bob Fynbo pitched his private Internet provider company, Chappy WISP, as an alternative to Comcast. He declined Mr. Becker’s invitation to attend the August meeting.

Mr. Becker asked for a show of hands of those in favor of the Comcast deal. The 60 or so hands were two shy of unanimous.

“I can see we’re preaching to the choir here,” said Mr. Becker. “But it’s very, very clear that the 270 is going to be hard to obtain. You have to approach friends and neighbors to get them on board.”

Board member and Chappy ferry owner Peter Wells made a more altruistic plea. “Even if you never want it, you can send in your letter and say ‘I want my neighbors to have this.’ You don’t have to do it, but your neighbors can.”

“We have received, by anonymous, and unsolicited donations, $40,000 to help residents who need help with the cost. It will be gifted, it’s not a loan,” said Lionel Spiro.

Seasonal resident Jay Hunter, one of the two dissenting votes, made an impassioned statement. “I’ve been coming here since I was a Boy Scout. I love Chappaquiddick. I am here to get away from that stuff. My kids come here and they read. And they love it, we all do. Please don’t shoot me here, but everyone’s making the assumption that the island is for it. Maybe the island isn’t for it. Look how much trouble you’re having getting the votes. I’ve read all the Comcast material. I believe they’re doing everything they can not to bring service here, and if they’re coerced into doing it, it’s not going to be pleasant. I think it’s unconscionable what they’re charging. Chappy WISP works just fine for me.”

Confusion continues

The process started with a mass mailing from Comcast that caused mass confusion.

Now, new mail issues are arising. Ballots mailed to the bank have gone missing, or have been returned to senders by the postal service. Some potential voters have yet to receive ballots. And the clock is ticking.

“There are 12 lots that didn’t get mailings,” said Mr. Filley. “There are people who definitely sent letters in that are not listed with the bank. Some people have houses in trusts and weren’t counted. Some people thought it was junk mail and threw it away. There’s a lot of confusion. But [town adminstrator] Pam Dolby is working very hard to clear things up.”

According to sources, there currently are 119 verbal commitments in addition to the 77 letters on file at the bank, making a conditional total of 196 yes votes.

Of the 64 year-round residents, 35 have said yes, five are on the fence, and six have said no.

Other business

Peter Wells, owner/operator of the Chappy ferry, said the On Time III will be out of commission for regular maintenance, starting the Tuesday after Labor Day, but he reassured the fishing community that both ferries will be in operation by Derby time. He also said plans are being drawn up for a third ferry.

Mr. Wells also reminded people that the boats are always available for an emergency, and if they are calling in on a cell phone, they should call 508-693-1212 and not 911.

Chris Kennedy, superintendent for Martha’s Vineyard Trustees of Reservations, reported that a record 20 piping plover chicks were fledged this year on Chappy. Also, pursuant to the recent rash of swimming rescues at the Wasque breech, he warned the public that on the afternoons of August 17, 18, 19, could be be especially treacherous, due to moon tides combining with outgoing tides in the afternoon.

Mr. Becker said that, thanks to a $170,000 appropriation from the town, work on a new parking lot at Ferry Point will begin this fall. He also reported that the town paid for a new Chappy fire truck, which will arrive in the fall.