West Tisbury selectmen hear about alternative to cell towers
Two wireless technology representatives offered an alternative to cell phone towers to the West Tisbury selectmen last week.
Consultant David Maxson of Broadcast Signal Lab and owner Andrew Nanaa of Shyam, a telecommunications company in Pennsylvania, described a distributed antenna system (DAS), which could be used as an alternative to towers in some areas.
Mr. Maxson has been working with Aquinnah to help pave the way for DAS in that town. Mr. Maxson said the system should work well in Aquinnah because it is a fairly small area. Chilmark officials are also interested in DAS for their town.
In August, representatives of Aquinnah and Chilmark flew to Nantucket for a quick tour of that island's distributed antenna system, which relies on a series of small antennas set on telephone poles to distribute cellular telephone signals.
Chilmark Selectman Frank Fenner, who attended last week's meeting and who was one of those who had traveled to Nantucket, said he believes DAS is a viable option for Chilmark. "Sooner or later, they're coming," he said. "We're getting some pressure from citizens who want to use their cell phones for emergencies."
Mr. Maxson and Mr. Nanaa indicated that the antenna system could be feasible for West Tisbury as well, but the consultants and town officials need to do more work to determine how it could be done.
With the constantly changing technology, Mr. Maxson explained there is a need for higher signal levels and more antenna sites, as companies begin offering broadband services, such as the Internet, through cell phones.
The distributed antenna system uses fiber optic cables to connect to antenna nodes that are put on existing utility poles. Mr. Maxson said the antennas are either cylindrical rods about three to five feet tall and about one inch in diameter or canisters about the diameter of a utility pole.
The system is good for small, highly concentrated areas, such as airports and university campuses, Mr. Maxson said. It could be available to any cell phone carrier that wants it, he said. The carriers would be tenants of the antennas.
"One of the difficulties is if an area is fairly spread out," Mr. Maxson said. "It provides some challenges of how to design the network."
Taller tree cover like West Tisbury's also presents more difficulty for throwing the signals, he said. However, Mr. Maxson said, some areas of the town may already be satisfactorily covered for service.
"We would have to see how far to go," he said. The system could be a mix of towers and the antennas.
Selectman Glenn Hearn pointed out that there are large areas in West Tisbury, including some residential properties and the south shore, that are more than the average one-quarter mile apart that is recommended for installing the antennas,
To get closer to those areas, Mr. Maxson said a trench could be built alongside a right of way to get to a pole. Underground wires also could be put in areas that prohibit overhead utilities.
Mr. Nanaa said the answer for an area such as West Tisbury would probably be a mixture of pole-mounted antennas and underground installations. For reliability, he said, his company likes to consider underground wires first. "We want to be sensitive to the character of the neighborhood," he added.
Mr. Maxson also said carriers may have some resistance to signing up for the antenna system. "Communities have to stand very firmly against the towers," he said, although he said there might still be reasons to have towers.
He explained that under the federal Telecommunications Act of 1966, local communities are required to provide a certain level of communication services. He said federal courts have ruled in favor of proposed cell phone towers because towns presented no alternatives.
"If you're going to be strong about resisting towers, you have to find a way to enable that provision of service," Mr. Maxson said. "It's important to get on the band wagon now before the carriers come with a tower proposal."
Up-front costs to lay out the antenna network are another factor to consider, Mr. Maxson said. However, he said the cost complaints are not really valid and should be looked at in terms of 10 years.
Mr. Maxson suggested that some of the costs of the antenna system might be funded with grants or by the first tenant on the system. One centralized piece of equipment could handle a 13-mile radius, which could serve most of the Island from a central location, Mr. Nanaa said.
The antenna system meets all the federal emission standards by a "huge margin between limits and what is safe," Mr. Maxson said.
Mr. Maxson said there might be a way to do some public partnering among the three up-Island towns to get the system started, Mr. Maxson suggested. The town officials need to do more homework on the issue, he said.
After seeing the area for the first time, Mr. Nanaa said he will draw up some preliminary cost estimates to see if the system would be feasible here. If he concludes that it is, he would start to define the rest of the process. His company would also have to figure out where to build a fiber plant to support the system. "It's a lot of work on our part," he said.
Mr. Hearn concluded: "We're interested to see if we should look at this further." The selectmen will check with the planning board administrator to see if the system would be feasible for West Tisbury.