WiFi coverage without towers
America is going wireless, but Martha's Vineyard, particularly up-Island Martha's Vineyard, is having trouble keeping up, because voters here fiercely resist the unsightly cell phone towers wirelessness requires. However, the little town of Aquinnah, the smallest on the Island, is taking the lead in providing cell phone coverage without towers.
Businesses on the go depend on cell phone service, not just for voice contact, but also for wireless laptop computer terminals, instant text messages, news, up-to-the-second market information, spreadsheets, reports stored in the office computer server - everything that an Internet connection might provide, as well a telephone ready to hand anywhere and any time.
Police and other modern public safety personnel now have laptop computers with them on the road, providing maps, background checks, and communication channels not available to anyone with a short-wave scanner. West Tisbury police chief Beth Toomey says that a wireless system would significantly reduce the work-load on the Communications Center and increase speed and effectiveness of response. Island public safety officials are actively pursuing wireless communications Island-wide, she says.
We may be entering the wireless age, but, as everyone who owns a cell phone knows, service on the Vineyard, especially up-Island, is spotty and unreliable. One solution, which the carriers would be happy to provide, is to build lots of cell phone towers. But cell phone towers mar the landscapes so dear to Islanders and so important to tourism. Nevertheless, the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TA96) limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. Voters cannot just say no.
The alternative to towers
There is an alternative to towers, and Aquinnah is in the process of exploring it and may bring along the other two up-Island towns, or even the whole Island.
Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Burgoyne credits Lauri Bradway with bringing the Distributive Antenna System (DAS) to his attention. In working to prevent Cingular Wireless from placing a cell phone transmitter in a replacement steeple on the Gay Head Community Baptist Church, Ms. Bradway found that a carrier cannot force a town to accept a cell phone tower if there is an alternative distribution system available to carry its services. The Distributive Antenna System uses a network of small antennas mounted on telephone poles and fed by fiber optic cables. The same electronics which would be at the base of a tower are housed in a base station, quaintly called a "hotel."
A DAS is not without problems. It is more expensive to set up than the equivalent coverage with towers. In an area as large as up-Island, several "hotels" might be needed. The small antennas have a limited range, perhaps as much as a mile if the terrain is very open, or as short as 600 feet if obstacles intervene. Houses down long private roads might be out of range, as well as remote beaches such as Long Point in West Tisbury. Consultant David Maxson of Medway, who is working with Aquinnah to develop a DAS, says that cell phone companies are interested only in servicing major roads, but for public safety officials, among others, complete coverage is key. Mr. Maxson does not agree that remote users will be forever out of reach. "Engineering is the art of the possible," he told The Times this week, and he cited a stronger transmitter called WiMAX, which could be set up to provide service to a group of remote homes, as an example.
Aquinnah leads the way
In January, Aquinnah voters mounted a multi-pronged effort to take control of the town's wireless future by creating a wireless overlay district that would allow for the needed base equipment to be placed at the town landfill.
Representatives from Chilmark and Aquinnah flew to Nantucket in August to view the DAS in use there.
On Oct. 3, the selectmen voted to settle the town's suit with Cingular by offering to grant a special permit giving Cingular permission to use the church tower for five years, after which they would have to switch to a DAS system, if the town has by then created one. There are other considerations, and Cingular has not yet agreed to settle, but Mr. Burgoyne is confident that the details will be worked out.
Article 7 of this week's special town meeting in Aquinnah asks voters to authorize the selectmen to enter into a regional agreement with "nearby towns" to create a fiber optic network or to "take any other action relative thereto." The meeting scheduled for Tuesday did not achieve a quorum, but the matter will come before voters tonight at 7 pm. It is expected to pass.
The article proposed to Aquinnah voters indicates that a regional solution may be in the future. Mr. Maxson has also made a presentation to selectmen from West Tisbury and Chilmark, which are now in the very early stages of exploring the feasibility of a DAS in their towns. Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner, who made the trip to view Nantucket's DAS, told a Times reporter that a DAS might solve the problem of providing cell phone service to Menemsha, which now has little or no service.
Selectman Glenn of West Tisbury told The Times this week that all three West Tisbury selectmen are interested in the idea, but that it is only in the feasibility stage right now. "We need to see some numbers," he said.
While installing a DAS would be expensive, the private company or municipality that owns such a system stands to make a sizable profit if, as seems likely, the future of communications is wireless.