Cell company maps up-Island towns
Technicians for a company that specializes in providing communication infrastructure networks for wireless telephone carriers in the United States and Australia spent several days this week literally going up and down up-Island roadways.
Representatives of Crown Castle International, which owns more than 23,500 towers in this country alone, were on the Vineyard to analyze the potential for a distributed antenna system (DAS) to provide wireless service in areas of West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah that do not now get service.
DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes (RAN) connected to small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for that specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less, the DAS appeals to communities where a conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.
Crown Castle DAS engineers gauge the potential for wireless service at Beetlebung Corner in Chilmark Photo by Ralph Stewart
At an informal meeting Monday afternoon in the Howes House in West Tisbury, Crown Castle DAS site development manager Harry Stephey described what he hoped to accomplish to West Tisbury selectman Glen Hearn, Chilmark selectman Frank Fenner, Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose and Aquinnah town administrator Jeff Burgoyne.
The three selectmen are exploring possibilities for a regional DAS system that could include erecting town-owned poles at selected sites in order to minimize visibility and maximize signal area. Although the towns could potentially earn some income, the selectmen said their goal is to provide better wireless service for residents and visitors, which has a public safety component, and buttress efforts to guard against cell towers.
The federal Telecommunication Act of 1996 (TCA) limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage. In some cases cellular companies prefer to cooperate with towns rather than fight in court over a cell tower and opt to use a DAS.
Mr. Stephey told the selectmen that company radio frequency engineers planned to drive around in a bucket truck provided by a local tree service company and erect a bucket outfitted with a transmitter and antenna. Engineers would then drive around and test signal strength.
Testing was expected to take three or four days, according to Mr. Stephey. Once all the data was collected, it should provide a map of how many RANs would be needed to provide coverage over a specific area.
Mr. Stephey explained that his company is only in the business of providing networks for wireless carriers willing to use it. It is the wireless carriers who ultimately pay for a system through lease fees.
"DAS is not our first choice," said Mr. Stephey. "A tower is cheaper."
He said that where a tower was not an option the company turned to DAS. As an example, he said his company installed a network for the gated community of Hilton Head Plantation, a 4,000 square-acre-enclave in South Carolina.
The development had strict rules regarding the location of poles, their height and other visual considerations. All lines were buried.
Many factors can contribute to the cost of a DAS. In the best scenario, the system provider, be it Crown Castle or another network company, could utilize existing but unused fiber optic cable, so-called dark cable, and use existing telephone poles.
Construction costs rise when the company needs to string new fiber optic cable, erect new poles, and bury lines. Mr. Stephey said that based on a conversation with Comcast representatives the company was unlikely to lease any existing fiber optic cable.
He said the actual construction time of a DAS is two to three months. "But it takes a lot of months to get there," he said, noting the public and permitting process.
Mr. Stephey told the selectmen he expected to test 15 to 20 spots. Terrain and time of year are factors in signal strength, which may vary from one quarter of mile to more than half a mile. For example, because trees are bare now, the signal will be stronger than when there are leaves.
An average tower may emit 50 to 100 watts and have a range of five miles. A DAS system uses approximately 10 watts, Mr. Stephey said. He also pointed out that signal strength is a two-way street. The user's cell phone, which operates with less than a watt of power, is a miniature transmitter that must also be able to reach the DAS antenna or tower.
Selectmen expressed an interest in providing service to some notorious cell phone dead spots, including the areas around Menemsha Pond, Menemsha Basin, and Squibnocket Beach.
An initial up-Island DAS system might run along the existing major roadways, filling in the gaps where existing service does not now exist. The viability of the proposal includes finding an anchor tenant interested in filling gaps in existing cell phone service, for example T-Mobile or Sprint.
Mr. Stephey cautioned the town officials against any revenue expectations. "You don't want to be looking at this as a cash cow if you want it to be attractive to carriers," he said. "It all comes down to the total cost of the network."
Late Tuesday Mr. Stephey told The Times that he had tested about 15 sites in Aquinnah and "it went pretty well."
He said any DAS system would not be able to provide service for everyone living along the routes. "It is not going to be 100 percent, but of course it never is," he said.
The examination of the DAS alternative began in Aquinnah more than one year ago when 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 placement of DAS equipment at the town landfill.
The town has also hired David Maxson, a wireless consultant, to assist the town with wireless issues.
Last August, representatives of Aquinnah and Chilmark flew to Nantucket for a quick tour of that island's distributed antenna system.