DAS company will move forward without up-Island towns approval
The head of a start-up company that wants to erect a distributed antenna system (DAS) in the up-Island towns told local officials last week that his company could proceed with or without local approvals.
Andrew Nanaa, chief operating office of Global Protection Communication Systems (GPCS) said his company's status as a state utility removes the need for local approval.
The pronouncement took local town officials by surprise. Over the past several months, representatives of the boards of selectmen in Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury have been meeting together and with representatives of various companies as they chart a course that would bring DAS to their towns.
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.
The towns plan to issue a request for DAS proposals and then select a company. GPCS has other ideas, however.
"We've decided to go ahead," Mr. Nanaa told The Times on Friday. He told the West Tisbury selectmen the same thing last week. "We decided to get our own investors.... We intend to build a fiber optic network," he said. "In theory, we don't need the town permissions."
However, town officials are questioning whether GPCS can proceed without local, state, and other utility companies' approvals, and they are unclear about some of the permitting processes since DAS is a new kind of telecommunications system. State officials also said certain permissions are needed.
The newly formed company, based in White Plains, N.Y., has backing from a group of private investors, whose names Mr. Nanaa would not release, but he said the company is now a public utility, which can operate under state regulations. He claimed the company could install the DAS poles under the state regulation called "competitive neutrality," similar to regulations that apply to Verizon and NStar.
A state official clarified the status and rights of GPCS Wednesday. Michael Isenberg, director of the Telecommunications and Cable Division of the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable, confirmed that GPCS filed around Aug. 1 what the department calls a tariff as a registered telecommunications common carrier. The designation is "not really a public utility," Mr. Isenberg said, but it does give the company the authority to start operating under the rules of common carriers, which have to serve everyone interested in their service.
Once the company has the authority to operate, it also has the authority to install facilities as a facilities-based carrier to build its network, Mr. Isenberg said.
Based on the tariff information GPCS filed, it is not going to be a DAS provider itself, but will be a "transport provider" for other DAS providers, Mr. Isenberg said. The company will also offer private line service to transport voice and data, he said.
Mr. Isenberg also said GPCS can use the same right of ways as the other utilities if it gets permission from them to use their conduits and poles. However, if the company installs new poles, he said, "I am almost certain they have to get a grant of location from the municipalities."
If GPCS puts up its own poles for the system, Mr. Isenberg said it would be a rarity in the state. "No others have put up their own poles. All attached to existing poles," he said.
After attending many meetings with selectmen and other officials from Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury, Mr. Nanaa said, "It became apparent they didn't want to spend anything and I can't blame them. We are a new company.
"When the towns decide what they want, we'll be able to offer it," he added. "We're offering a good service, properly priced. We'll have customers."
Mark Russell, chief operating officer of GPCS, also told Chilmark selectmen two weeks ago that the company would not be dependent on revenue from town emergency departments that could use its network because it expects to get most of its revenue from seasonal population and visitors as well as contracts with cellular phone companies.
The company's engineers are going ahead with designing the system for all three towns, Mr. Nanaa said, so when the towns get to the request for proposal (RFP) process, the company will be able to respond. The system will take about five months to prepare and three weeks to install. "It's been apparent it would be quicker and easier if we can build this first," he said.
"This is all news to us," said Aquinnah town coordinator Jeff Burgoyne, who has been looking at various DAS system proposals from different companies, including GPCS, for more than a year. He said the town does require a permit for a company to wire the infrastructure for such a system, and it also needs permissions from the towns and Verizon and NStar if they want to share their utility poles.
Mr. Nanaa, however, said the company is now convinced it will have to install its own poles because the old poles are overloaded, and because of the "ponderous process to coordinate with the other utilities."
Aquinnah has decided to go ahead with a distributed antenna system (DAS), Mr. Burgoyne said. He is currently preparing an RFP, which could be ready in a couple of weeks. West Tisbury is also working on an RFP for a DAS, selectman chairman Glenn Hearn said. All three towns have appropriated money to cover the cost of the RFPs.
Six companies, including GPCS, have expressed interest in installing the new system in Aquinnah, Mr. Burgoyne said. At least one company, Crown Castle International, spent time on the Island in March talking with officials from the three towns and looking over potential sites for the antennas.
GPCS will get the same consideration as the other companies that submit a proposal, Mr. Burgoyne said. Awarding the bid for the system will be based on a company's financial capacity, track record in the field, credibility, and cost, he said.
"We have to treat everybody with equal consideration," he said. "The company we're looking at needs to fit the criteria." The towns have to get everything right with the new system the first time because, he said, "We have one shot at this."
The DAS plan hinges on the approval of all three Up-Island towns, which has three components, Mr. Burgoyne explained. The first component is a memorandum of understanding among the three towns in which all agree to have DAS serve Up-Island.
The second component is issuing the RFP to the same company, and the third is the right-of-way agreement, which provides the company access to the town property it needs to build on, such as clearance for poles.
If the DAS plan goes through, a bay station for the equipment would be built in the Aquinnah landfill. The entire Up-Island system would also require a total of 30 nodes, or three-foot-square boxes, to be installed on poles, Mr. Burgoyne said. The fiber optic cable connecting the system would be installed underground.
"It comes down to the right-of-way agreement," Mr. Burgoyne said. He said Aquinnah could go ahead and issue the RFP to a company before Chilmark and West Tisbury have approved the entire plan. "We would like to offer a window for a company to come in and not be concerned about other municipalities," he said.
The company that gets the contract could begin some of the work, such as preparation at the landfill, in October and November, and then finish in the spring "to have it up and running by June," Mr. Burgoyne said. He believes it is a realistic timetable and would have support, but he acknowledged, "It is a delicate timeframe" in terms of the other towns' approving the entire plan.
Chilmark and West Tisbury have not been moving as fast as Aquinnah on the various proposals, and are still looking at other options, including proposals from existing cellular phone companies.
Chilmark selectman Riggs Parker, the board's point man on cell phone issues, also said Tuesday that GPCS's intentions "are news to me." He referred to a town bylaw that governs wireless communications transmitters.
The bylaw requires public and abutter notification at least 21 days before a zoning board of appeals hearing, and a long list of requirements, including a letter approving the transmitter from the state Department of Public Health. Much of the bylaw includes the specifications for traditional cell phone towers, so it is unclear if it would apply to the new DAS.
Mr. Hearn, who has been dealing with the DAS proposals for West Tisbury, said Tuesday he heard what Mr. Nanaa said last week about going ahead, but he believes the company would have to get some permissions in West Tisbury. He said he is not sure what those would be because the town would need new bylaws to govern DAS, which is a new entity on the Vineyard.
"We've never done it before," Mr. Hearn said. "We've got to find out what the score is." But he said a public utility like NStar has to have a public hearing each time a new customer wants a pole installed. He said he told the GPCS representatives about the town's preparation of an RFP. "We would like to hear what all those companies plan to do," he said.
Chilmark is going slower on the DAS proposals. Selectman Warren Doty said at a special selectmen's meeting last week that an RFP for DAS would need town meeting approval.
David Maxson of Broadcast Signal Lab, and the DAS consultant for Aquinnah and Chilmark, is familiar with the state regulations for telecommunications companies. He said companies that build distributed antenna systems have the same right to use the utility poles as other utility companies.
"They can string fiber and put up poles," he said. "In essence, they are competing with the phone and cable companies." As a registered public utility, GPCS has equal rights to rights of way, Mr. Maxson said. "They are registered and ready to go in a legal sense," he said, but added that the company is subject to state and local oversight.
Mr. Maxson described GPCS as a "business providing a fiber optic backbone for the whole Island." He said he believes GPCS has chosen to go the public utility route "because they feel they can compete."
The GPSC officers have repeatedly said the same thing. Mr. Nanaa said the company has been working hard to accommodate all the towns' concerns about high towers and additional utility poles. In Aquinnah, which has approved a pole height up to 70 feet, Mr. Nanaa said GPCS is going to try the 40-foot poles first to see if they work. "We're trying to appease everyone if we can," he said. "We got the message loud and clear, and we're trying to make it work."
Installation of the system will require minimal digging along roadways using directional boring at each pole, where a machine will push a rod containing the cables under the ground to connect to the conduits, Mr. Nanaa explained. The cables are not sunk deep into the ground.
He said the company's plan is to start installing the cables along State Road in the center of Chilmark to Gay Head, along Iroquois Trail, and part or all of Lobsterville Road. It also wants to extend the initial link from Beetlebung Corner into Menemsha.
"The goal is 100 percent in Aquinnah and 100 percent Island," Mr. Nanaa said. The company hopes to have Aquinnah operational with DAS by next April, he said, confirming what Mr. Burgoyne said.
Mr. Nanaa said GPCS would file the necessary paperwork with the state Department of Transportation for traffic control, water crossings, and other safety rules. He explained why GPCS chose Martha's Vineyard for its first venture into DAS. "The market forces converged on Martha's Vineyard," he said, convincing investors to support the project. For example, he said, having high-speed technology available will allow executives from Boston to have a home office on the Vineyard.
"We see it as an economic stimulus," he said. "It seems to fit with the Martha's Vineyard Plan. We think we are in the right place at the right time."