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Edgartown selectmen Monday listened to Chappaquiddick residents express concerns about a lack of wireless phone service. Left to right: Margaret Serpa, Art Smadbeck and Michael Donaroma. — Photo by Rich Saltzberg

A large group of Chappaquiddick residents aired their concerns about spotty wireless telephone reception on the small island and the need to improve coverage at a meeting with Edgartown selectmen Monday night. One overriding question remained: whether to continue to pursue a distributed antenna system (DAS) or turn efforts to erecting a more conventional tower in the Island’s easternmost community.

Many of those who spoke framed the issue as one of public safety. The danger of spotty service resulting in the failure of emergency transmissions was a recurring theme in audience anecdotes and statements.

The Chappaquiddick Wireless Committee has directed its efforts towards a DAS , which relies on a network of small antennas, often placed on utility poles, as an alternative to conventional towers. In June 2012, selectmen accepted the only response to a request for proposals (RFP) to build and operate a DAS on Chappaquiddick. In a joint venture, Grain Communications Group, Inc. of Sarasota, Florida, and Broadband Service Group, Inc., a Michigan-based company, submitted the proposal, which was also expected to provide high-speed data communications, in addition to voice. But the developers were unable to attract any mobile carriers to sign up.

Much of the discussion Monday night focused on the scope and merits of the committee’s current RFP and its limited scope focused on DAS. Responding to an overwhelming show of hands in support, the selectmen agreed to expand the RFP in order to explore “other systems,” presumably towers.

During the discussion, wireless committee member Bob Gurnitz laid the blame for the delay in the sole focus on DAS. Mr. Gurnitz said that DAS had no appeal to cell providers due to its cost and reliability and such a system only had the support of a minority of residents.

In a followup email, Mr. Gurnitz told The Times, “The selectmen appeared to be very much in support of the direction suggested by the clear majority of those in attendance and we look forward to an expedited process which will result in high quality cell service on Chappy. Besides being an issue of convenience, lack of such service is clearly a public safety issue.”

Roger Becker, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association and a member of the Wireless Committee, disagreed. Mr. Becker said the selectmen’s desire for a conventional tower on town-owned land was at the root of the delay.

“I was able to get my neighbors to email and request the selectmen get input from Chappy residents before moving ahead with plans for such a tower,” Mr. Becker said in a followup email to The Times. “It was easy to see the DAS was far superior in every way to the over-height tower as we were advised by a consultant hired by the town to get cell coverage for underserved areas of Edgartown, Katama and Chappy. The issue for Chappy is simply this: the cell providers aren’t interested in coming here because the demand for connection is very small. The signals from the tower in Edgartown cover the island to Sampson’s hill in the middle of the island leaving only about 300 houses without a signal and the beaches.”

While stating no preference, Chris Kennedy, the Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent for The Trustees of the Reservations, the conservation group that owns or manages much of the island’s extensive beachfront, highlighted the safety concerns. Mr. Kennedy said there is no reliable cell phone signal on the beaches from Wasque to Cape Poge and calls are routinely dropped or garbled, which could cost valuable minutes in an emergency.

In other business Monday,  selectmen accepted with regrets a notice of retirement from longtime Edgartown Police sergeant Ken Johnson. Prior to adjournment, selectmen canceled the August 18 meeting due to an anticipated lack of quorum.

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Comcast has extended the deadline for at least 270 homeowners to pay a minimum of $2,139 each to bring service to the island.

The island of Chappaquiddick on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard is without cable service. — File photo by Bill Brine

The hard fought and sometimes fractious campaign to bring Comcast high speed Internet/cable TV/phone service to Chappaquiddick appeared as though it was about to hit a wall in the form of a Monday, July 21, deadline by which at least 270 homeowners were required to pay Comcast a minimum installation fee of $2,139, which the cable giant said it needs to make its $1.58 million initial investment to wire the tiny island commercially viable.
However, island proponents of the multi-step deal fashioned by Edgartown officials were recently given a boost when the cable giant moved the deposit deadline back to March 1, 2015. If Comcast had stuck to the original deadline, the prospect for cable on Chappy would be extremely dim.

According to residents involved with negotiations, as of Wednesday, July 16, there were 92 deposits on the books.

The deadline has been extended in part because there was so much sturm und drang surrounding the previous benchmark of 270 commitment letters by October 1, 2013.

The commitment letter required no payment from the homeowner. It simply gave Comcast permission to survey their “dwelling unit” to determine if logistical complications, namely the distance from the main cable under Chappaquiddick road, would require additional charges above the $2,139 deposit.

“The deadline extension was mutually agreed upon in the spirit of cooperation as we continue to work with Edgartown leaders in our efforts to have Comcast serve the island of Chappaquiddick,” Comcast cable spokesman Marc Goodman said Wednesday in a phone call with The Times.

In the meantime, cable proponents hope they can enlist more signups from people who were initially uneasy about sending in a commitment letter or were simply unaware of what it entailed.

Woody Filley, Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) utilities committee member, said in a phone call with The Times that 294 people sent in commitment letters by last year’s October 1 deadline.

He said there are another 140 homeowners that were not part of the initial commitment letter inventory. Comcast is going to allow those people another opportunity to sign a commitment letter. Once signed, Comcast will send out engineers to evaluate the installation charges. At that time, homeowners can decide whether they would like to place a deposit for service.

First hurdle
By July 2013, there were only a handful of commitment letters on file, due in part to confusion over the terms. Some residents thought that the letter left them vulnerable to an open-ended financial commitment. Some proponents of the deal thought the Comcast estimate of “dwelling units” contained guest houses and detached garages, thus making the goal more difficult to reach. Comcast denied appeals for a recount.

At the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) annual meeting in July 2013, it was apparent that the Comcast commitment letter had created a great deal of confusion. Many people were put off by the brief missive which stated that each homeowner had to sign up for for two years of basic cable in addition to paying the Aid in Construction Fee (AIC) of at least $2,139. But over the next two months, the tide turned.

That 294 letters of commitment were tallied at Edgartown National Bank on October 1 was a testament to a core group of people on the CIA utilities committee, headed by Mr. Filley, a technology teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who relentlessly worked the phones and bent ears whenever and wherever they could. Chappy ferry owner Peter Wells, a strong advocate of the technology upgrade, kept a running tally on a scoreboard on the Chappy side of the ferry. He was also uniquely situated to lobby his captive audience, in his own genial way.

Keep counting

It’s one thing to get 270 people to send in a letter, it’s another to get them to part with more than $2,100 dollars. Mr. Filley said that while the deadline has been pushed back to March 1, 2015, the goal is still to get 270 deposits in as soon as possible. “The sooner we hit 270, the sooner Comcast gets going,” he said.

Comcast completed its survey of Chappy by March of 2014, and the estimates were sent out. While some proponents thought Comcast might try to get out of the deal with exorbitant AIC fees, very few of the houses that could be wired required additional funds. “Most homes were not to be charged anything but minimal installation fees,” Mr Filley said.

Mr. Filley said lessons have been learned from last year’s commitment letter campaign and changes have been made in the collection process. “We’ve been working with [Edgartown town administrator] Pam Dolby and she’s been taking payments,” he said. “A lot of people have been dropping them off at her office.” Mr Filley said deposits can also be sent to: Town of Edgartown, PO Box 5158, Edgartown, MA, 02539, Attention: Pamela Dolby “Confidential.”

The original Comcast proposal stated that if the required deposits were in by July 21, 2014, Chappy would have a functioning cable system by February 15, 2016.

Banding together for bandwidth
To help Chappy residents who want hi-speed Internet but can’t swing the high up-front cost, some Chappy residents have established the Chappaquiddick Community Fund (CCF). “The long-range purpose of the CCF would be to provide financial help to face a variety of issues and needs that might arise within the Chappy community such as emergency fuel assistance, emergency medical costs and other such needs,” former CIA president Lionel Spiro wrote in an email to The Times. “In addition, our application to the IRS described the need to raise funds to provide Comcast with half their costs of installing cables under town roads. Thus far, various members of the Chappaquiddick community have indicated a willingness to donate as much as $153,000 if needed, for this purpose.”
Mr. Filley advises people who are content with their current Internet service with Verizon or ChappyWISP to consider the explosive pace of technology growth. “This is not just going to fix a problem for a year. This is going to be a long-term improvement to the infrastructure,” Mr. Filley said. “Consider how much technology has changed in the past 10 years. Medical technology is exploding on the Internet. That’s especially important for remote areas like Chappy. And look at the convenience that it brings. It wasn’t that long ago when you had to drive to the steamship to get a reservation. Infrastructure decisions are made on anticipated lifestyles instead of present lifestyles.”

To people who resist the deal because they resent having no other choice in cable provider, Mr. Filley says that when it comes to something as crucial as technology, it’s better to have one monopoly than none at all.

Don’t touch that dial
Not everyone on Chappy wants Comcast to come. Seasonal resident Jay Hunter is an outspoken opponent of the deal. “One of the reasons people come to Chappy is the serenity and the wilderness,” he said in a phone call with The Times. “It’s one of the reasons why we’re here, to get away from things you’re inundated with. My bookcase is full of books that actually get read. We go hiking and blueberry picking and fishing. My 26-year-old was just here with a buddy, the TV or the computer weren’t on once.There were too many other things to do.”
Mr. Hunter also questions the current Comcast strategy from a technological angle. “Communication is going to be wireless, that’s the direction technology is going. For now, Chappy WISP works just fine. I was working this morning on the Internet and we stream Netflix no problem.”

Long time coming
The battle to wire Chappy began in early 2011, when negotiations began for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, Comcast said it had no interest in serving the remote, sparsely populated, island on an island. Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block to renewing the Island-wide deal. The CAB and Comcast extended the contract several times over the long and increasingly strained negotiation. In December 2011, Ms. Dolby refused to attend any more meetings until Chappy was included in the conversation. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy, and finally, in late January of 2013, the selectmen from the six towns endorsed a 10-year, Island-wide agreement with Comcast.

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The On Time provides Chappy residents with a reliable link to the Island. Improved wireless service without a cell tower remains a challenge. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Edgartown selectmen told members of the Chappaquiddick wireless committee Monday that they’ve reached a dead end in their efforts to improve wireless service without a tower.

Asked for a progress report, committee member Fran Clay told selectmen that the committee remains steadfast in its determination to seek a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) system, which relies on a network of small antennas, often placed on utility poles, and provides an alternative to conventional towers.

“The Chappaquiddick wireless committee recommends that selectmen do not issue an RFP for an over height cell tower on Chappy at this time,” Ms. Clay said. “The committee has determined and agrees, that a Distributed Antenna System (DAS) is the best system for Chappy and allowing and encouraging a cell tower developer to propose to build an oversize cell tower will undermine the effort to interest a DAS developer to build a less intrusive and superior facility for Chappy.”

“This has been going on for what, three years?” selectman Margaret Serpa asked. “And nothing has happened. I just think we’re at a dead end.”

Selectman Arthur Smadbeck echoed Ms. Serpa’s sentiments. “We’ve sent out an RFP three times, and we haven’t gotten any response, and you guys don’t want anything but this system, so I would say that the wireless committee has done its job and, like Margaret said, we’re at the end of the road,” he said. “And it’s too bad it didn’t work out.”

Chappaquiddick Island Association president and wireless committee member Roger Becker was undeterred. “We feel that we can get it, eventually DAS will come to Chappaquiddick,  assuming you don’t undermine it with some secondary proposal for something less,” he said.

Town administrator Pamela Dolby proposed that selectmen hold a public hearing to solicit more views. “I’d suggest that you want to give them more time,” Ms. Dolby said. “And I think we should have a public hearing in July, when everybody’s here from Chappaquiddick. We’ll have a big public hearing and hear from the entire community.”

Selectmen agreed to schedule a meeting.

Books, wine and lighthouses

In other action Monday, selectmen approved a liquor licence request from Edgartown Books.

“The purpose of seeking an alcohol licence is just to enhance the experience,” said Sean Murphy, an Edgartown lawyer representing Edgartown Books. “They’re not looking to open a bar, they’re not looking to have any time issues, they’ll be closed when the book store closes at 10 o’clock.”

Selectmen also signed the lease agreement for the Edgartown Lighthouse.

The Martha’s Vineyard Museum will continue to act as stewards of the lighthouse.

“We’re thrilled to be able to continue this work, and we hope everybody has a chance to go down there this summer,” museum finance director Betsey Mayhew said.