DAS system clears one up-Island hurdle
Following a four-hour joint meeting punctuated by much discussion and debate, Chilmark and Aquinnah's respective permitting bodies cleared the way for American Tower Corporation (ATC) to site equipment needed to construct a distributed antenna system (DAS) along the public right of ways in the two up-Island towns as part of a three-town effort to improve wireless communication up-Island.
Or so it seemed. Because only five of the seven members of the Aquinnah planning board were present, their 3-2 vote must be revisited with two-thirds of the board in favor in order to approve the special permit.
Chilmark's 13-member plan review committee (PRC) voted 11 to 3 to approve.
Monday night ATC representatives made it clear: it is DAS or cell towers. ATC project manager Alex Gamota said that from the ATC perspective, "towers are preferable because they are cheaper, DAS is expensive." He explained that the wireless carriers, ATC's customers, are "trying to get coverage here and as soon as they can." If the special permit request was denied, Mr. Gamota said, "we will be back in a couple of months with tower applications because we are trying to find a solution that is viable."
Chilmark approved the request based on seven conditions, including the approval of the landscaping to be installed at the hub, final approval of the node location (by a to-be-named three member subcommittee), and approval of the style of antenna and nodes.
Aquinnah launched the effort to create a DAS system in December 2005 as a way to bolster the town's defense against cell towers and lawsuits brought by cell phone companies under the Telecommunication Act of 1996 (TCA), a federal law that limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. Chilmark and West Tisbury later joined the effort.
DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes, connected to small antennas set on telephone or replacement stub poles erected for the specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Fiber optic cable is also strung between the antenna poles to carry the signals along. A central hub (or "hotel") houses the carrier's signal-generating equipment. Although the range is considerably less than in conventional, tall-tower systems, DAS appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.
At the start of the meeting Mr. Gamota presented a brief review of the siting process to date and the most current proposal for placement of equipment in Aquinnah and Chilmark (the plan is available at here). He said the plan was based on a summer of signal field testing under conditions he termed "the worst" for DAS equipment because of full foliage.
The proposed DAS system would comprise 55 node locations: 8 in Aquinnah, 24 in Chilmark, and 23 in West Tisbury. The signal range would be approximately one half mile.
In response to earlier criticisms regarding the visual impact of the system, the company plans to use lower powered but less visible "whip" antenna and wooden telephone poles. The DAS network will utilize 1200 existing telephone poles for the fiber optic lines and 19 nodes with 36 new poles being required along the public right of way.
Andrew Pigney, ATC senior radio frequency engineering manager, said, "When we went to a lower powered antenna we had to add poles to provide the same quality of signal." He said that the poles are placed in locations that are "discrete and look natural."
Mr. Gamota also explained that the revised "less visible" hub location would still be at the Chilmark landfill site on Tabor House Road although it would moved so that the equipment would be less visible. A chain link fence and natural vegetation would surround the facility and a propane tank and generator have been moved to the back of the facility.
Aquinnah planning committee members focused on concerns regarding apparent gaps in coverage based on the latest maps ATC provided. Camille Rose, chairman and selectman, and Peter Temple expressed concerns about coverage at the town's public beaches.
Mr. Pigney said that he believed there would be ample coverage on the beaches based on the summer testing near the dunes and with abundant foliage, although additional poles could be added if needed. The challenge of adding poles is to keep poles as hidden as possible, Mr. Pigney said.
Any poles added to the project in either Aquinnah or Chilmark, after the permit is issued would also need to be permitted, ATC legal counsel Ken Spiegele said.
ATC was asked about the cost of burying the fiber optic cable rather than stringing it across existing telephone poles. Mr. Gamota explained that burying cable is four or five times more expensive than stringing it above ground.
The issue of radio frequency (RF) transmissions and health was on the mind of Nan Doty of Chilmark. "I do not use a cell phone, I do not have a microwave," Ms. Doty said. "We looked into wireless and concluded that it is not good to have in your house. You are at risk to your health."
Mr. Pigney and Mr. Gamota reminded those in attendance that the DAS system emission of 20 watts per node was less than 0.8 percent of both the federal and state safety limits. Mr. Gamota said that towers emit 250 watts.
Mr. Pigney said that the DAS system now proposed for the up-Island project is half of the power that was initially proposed. He also said that RF transmissions dissipate very quickly."
Mr. Spiegele stated that according to the Chilmark wireless technology permitting bylaws there would be annual studies conducted, at ATC expense, to ensure the safety of the system.
About 30 people attended the Monday night meeting. During the public comment period residents who had been notified that their property was within 300 feet of an expected antenna location rose to request that the equipment be moved a number of feet in one direction or another to a less obvious location. Other questions and comments focused on the DAS system potential impact on property values and scenic views.
Virginia Jones labeled the DAS system "visibly intrusive and a dubious system."
"The whole proposal has grown in magnitude and it is important to protect our scenic vistas," said Chilmark selectman Warren Doty, husband of Nan Doty. "DAS is basically ugly stuff."
Jay Lagemann spoke in favor of the DAS proposal. "We are dependent on the tourists and the tourists are addicted to cell phones," he said. "Cell phones are a part of living, it is the way to go. We are not going to need huge towers. With appropriate protections this is a project that should go forward."
Todd Christy of Chilmark said that cell phones are an important safety need on the Island. "It is going to happen," he said, referring to cell service, "and we have a chance to have a say about how that is going to happen to us."
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.
In response to questions about other options, ATC officials reminded the audience that cell towers are another option but had not been what the towns had requested in the initial request for proposals. Asked how many towers might be needed to provide adequate serve, Mr. Pigney said that three or four, of 120 feet in height, would be needed in Chilmark to accommodate four carriers there.
Chilmark committee members Tim Lasker and Mitch Posin said they supported towers rather than the DAS system. Mr. Lasker said, "I have come a full 180 degrees in the other direction and now believe that the town should bite the bullet and decide where three towers should be."
J.B. Riggs Parker, Chilmark selectman and chairman of the DAS committee created by the three towns to oversee the RFP process, said the towns had been at this issue a long time. "The town said no to towers and told the selectmen to get on it but no towers," he said. He explained that the RFP required cell service that covers the main roads in the three towns and the ATC proposal increases coverage.
Mr. Parker added, "cell service will be with us. With this proposal we are in the position to extract some benefits." Originally, the towns were to share a $150,000 fee to be paid by each carrier as well as a portion of the usage fees generated. Recently ATC requested changes to that contract offer as a result of downturns in the economy, although the specifics have not been made public.
Following the meeting, Mr. Gamota told The Times that the approvals should assist in ATC's effort to reach a carrier agreement with T-Mobile, which recently filed a formal expression of interest in the project. Without a signed carrier, ATC has stated that it will not proceed with the construction project. However, Mr. Gamota remains optimistic that ATC will be able to be operative during the summer of 2010, but he said that the company needs to start stringing cable no later than the first week of April.
ATC was scheduled to hold an informal meeting with the West Tisbury Zoning Board of Appeals last night to begin the permitting process.