Verizon plans wireless upgrade for Obama visit
Verizon, acting on behalf of the White House communications office, ran into a local stumble over a request to improve up-island cell phone service on the eve of President Barack Obama's Chilmark vacation this month.
Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll told selectmen Tuesday night that he had had a visit from Verizon officials on Friday seeking permission to place a temporary cell tower on Peaked Hill during the president's week-long stay. Mr. Carroll said the Verizon officials told him the request came from the White House communication office.
Verizon officials have also met with West Tisbury officials about parking two Verizon wireless antenna trucks during the presidential visit.
At the Chilmark selectmen's meeting on Tuesday, chairman J.B. Riggs Parker and selectman Frank Fenner voted to take no action on the request. Selectman Warren Doty was off-Island.
Mr. Parker said statutes that disallow siting of commercial communications systems at Peaked Hill may not allow the town to give permission. Mr. Fenner said he needed more information on how the system would work.
Officials in both towns confirmed that Verizon representatives visited their office last week seeking permission to site temporary cell phone towers in conjunction with the White House vacation but had little else to work with.
"We don't even know who is actually requesting it," Mr. Parker told The Times yesterday. "We haven't heard from the President or his representative or the White House communication office. All we have in front of us is a proposal from Verizon. We have no letter, just discussion that the request came from the White House communication office."
Years ago, 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.
Poor wireless reception and a telecommunication company's proposal for a tower in Aquinnah led to a current effort by Chilmark, West Tisbury and Aquinnah to erect a distributed antenna system, which relies on smaller antennas set on poles.
"We've been working very hard to get a distributed antenna system (DAS) in place," Mr. Parker said. "One prime reason is to avoid a cell tower on Peaked Hill. Town meeting has rejected it twice. I have no trouble locating the antenna someplace else."
West Tisbury building inspector Ernest P. Mendenhall said yesterday that he had also received a visit from Verizon officials last Friday. "They said you probably know the president's coming here and we have to improve cell phone service, and they presented me a plan to park a couple of Verizon antenna trucks at locations to be determined," Mr. Mendenhall told The Times.
"I have no bylaw to permit them under. As long as they don't park in the middle of road, we have no problem. I suggested that if they use private property or state land they needed to reach agreement with those parties."
Aquinnah town coordinator Jeff Burgoyne said he had received no requests of any kind from Verizon or from the White House.
Verizon officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Chilmark and West Tisbury selectman say they believe the effort is designed to improve cell phone service for the press corps accompanying the President and his family to a vacation home at 28-acre Blue Heron Farm near the Chilmark-West Tisbury town line.
"I assume it's for the press," Mr. Parker said. "We're told the White house communication office is requesting it. I can't believe the president is relying on cell service, particularly from a local tower."
West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel agreed. "I am sure the White House has communication equipment we don't even know about. Remember Bill Clinton was here seven or eight times and we did not hear about any communications problems," he said.
Asked whether the White House request for improved cell service would affect the three Up-Island towns' effort to approve a DAS system, Mr. Knabel pointed to a drowning death Saturday at Quansoo as a reason to improve wireless service.
Although confusion over the exact location of the victim and not poor cell phone reception affected rescue efforts, emergency officials have said that better wireless service would improve public safety.
"We should address it, particularly in light of the drowning last Saturday," Mr. Knabel said. "That's a much more stark focus. I know it is a problem. We need to make it safer."