DAS hearing airs wireless legal realities
The construction of a proposed distributed antennae system (DAS) could provide a regulatory bulwark against companies intent on building conventional wireless towers in West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, DAS proponents said at a recent meeting. By one industry estimate, without DAS, existing deficiencies in wireless coverage could invite as many as 11 tall towers for wireless carriers.
Alex Gamota, director of DAS strategic relations and network policy for proposed DAS vendor American Tower Corp. (ATC), provided the estimate at a public meeting on June 22 at the Chilmark Community Center, the latest in a series of public meetings on the proposal to improve wireless communications in the three up-Island towns.
In response to a question from Tucker Hubbell of West Tisbury, Mr. Gamota said that while his estimates were not scientific, he thought that Aquinnah might require two or three towers, Chilmark an additional four or five towers and West Tisbury two or three new towers.
Several speakers, including West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, reviewed the alternatives to DAS and the legal landscape. The US Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996 makes clear that the universal availability of wireless cell phone service is, in the federal government's view, in the public interest and critical to public safety. Further, the legislation puts restrictions on what towns such as the three up-Island towns now considering the DAS system may write into their zoning bylaws in order to prohibit the construction of wireless systems.
Both the 1996 federal law and a recent legal opinion the law firm of Reynolds, Rappaport & Kaplan, provided at the request of the towns, indicate that a successful legal challenge to a cell tower proposal would be highly unlikely without a viable alternative for a carrier to use, such as a DAS system, Mr. Knabel said.
"The law places limits on local control. I'm not saying it's a good law, but it is the law. That's reality and we have to live with it," Mr. Knabel said. He added that when communities provide a viable alternative to carriers, local control is restored to local zoning and permitting bodies with regard to placement of equipment and aesthetic considerations.
Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose agreed. "We can disallow cell towers if we have a system that provides what carriers want," she said.
Newly appointed Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi supported the idea of private agreements that would extend DAS coverage to more remote areas, such as the Quansoo area at the west side of Tisbury Great Pond.
"We have boosters on our equipment that allow us to communicate in those areas, but once we lift the handset, it can be lost," Mr. Cioffi said, encouraging both ATC and residents to pursue agreements to expand DAS nodes to private properties, particularly on the south shore of Tisbury Great Pond, where coverage is compromised, even under the proposed DAS network.