Edgartown selectmen elevate cell tower discussion for Chappy

Residents say mobile phone service on Chappaquiddick is unreliable. — File photo by Susan Safford

Edgartown selectmen opened their weekly meeting Monday with a discussion about wireless phone service and the best location for a cell tower on Chappaquiddick. The meeting included a description of the process of siting a tower by planning board assistant Georgiana Greenough.

About 20 Chappaquiddick residents attended the meeting. Others island residents sent their views to selectmen in emails.

“We have many emails, most in favor,” chairman Art Smadbeck said. “They would like to have a role in siting the towers.”

Some described current mobile phone service on Chappaquiddick as precipitous.

“I hope there would be an upgrade on cell service,” Chappy resident John Dropic said. “Last year we were out of service twice for four-day stretches.”

Locating a cell tower on one of the town-owned properties on Chappaquiddick could be a long process. It would first require a town meeting vote authorizing a change of use on the town-owned parcels. The town would then likely issue a request for proposals. Companies that would like to provide the service would submit proposals outlining design, height, coverage, and revenue they would pay to the town to rent the site.

The town could decide to investigate the impact of a cell tower on soil, the environment, the visual impact, and other factors.

Finally a company would be selected, acquire permits from town regulatory boards, and begin construction.

Ms. Greenough said if the town leases property to a cell phone company for a tower, regulatory boards would have some control over the site and the design.

“The town believes its best interest is to lease it on town property,” Ms. Greenough said. “It would also be income to the town, pretty substantial income.”

She said phone companies might pay in the range of $10,000 to $30,000 annually to rent the property.

AT&T, one of the carriers that approached the town about constructing a cell tower, has done a preliminary study, and identified two town-owned parcels on Chappaquiddick for the town to consider. The parcels are on Old Indian Trail, and Litchfield Road, very near the geographical center of Chappaquiddick.

The AT&T study estimates a 150-foot tower would provide good mobile phone reception over almost all of Chappaquiddick. By comparison, a 150-foot tower would be more than four times higher than the Cape Poge Lighthouse, which measures 35 feet tall.

The preliminary study says that at lower tower heights, mobile phone reception inside buildings along Chappy shorelines would begin to deteriorate.

A separate study by Isotrope Wireless identified three additional town-owned sites. One is identified in assessors’ records at 294 Chappaquiddick Road near the center of Chappaquiddick. Another is off Cassat Way, on the western part of Chappaquiddick. Another is 22 Narragansett Avenue, also on the western part of Chappaquiddick. That study shows potential coverage areas from a 100-foot tower. The coverage maps show with a tower of that height, significant parts of Chappaquiddick would still have weak or no coverage.

Ms. Greenough called for volunteers to form a committee to manage the process. She also said the committee would explore a Distributed Antenna System (DAS).

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 high conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.

In February 2010 Chilmark and Aquinnah signed a contract with American Tower Corporation (ATC) to build a distributed antennae system designed to improve wireless service in the up-Island towns without a conventional tower. That project is now moving forward.

Aquinnah launched the effort to create a DAS system in December 2005 as a way to bolster the town’s defense against cell towers and lawsuits brought by cell phone companies under the Telecommunication Act of 1996 (TCA), a federal law that limits the obstacles towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage.

Selectmen continued the discussion until their regular meeting on October 17, at 4 pm. They encouraged people to comment at that meeting.