DAS proposed to bring Chappy wireless coverage

Sparsely populated and without cable TV, internet, or phone services, Chappy residents may turn to a distributed antenna service, like the one installed in Chilmark and Aquinnah. The layout of such a system is mapped here. — Photo courtesy of Broadband Service Group, Inc.

Edgartown passed a milestone this week in its efforts to establish reliable wireless phone and data service on Chappaquiddick. The goals are convenience and enhanced safety in the Island’s remote, easternmost community that is accessible only be ferry.

Selectmen Monday accepted the only response to a request for proposals (RFP) to build and operate a distributed antenna system (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.

DAS relies on a network of small antennas, often placed on utility poles, and provides an alternative to conventional towers. The Chappaquiddick system would also provide high-speed data communications, in addition to voice.

The DAS project was prompted in part by inquiries from AT&T Communications. That company is exploring whether to offer conventional wireless service by erecting a tower on Chappaquiddick. According to a member of the committee that fashioned a request for DAS proposals with the help of a communications consultant, there is significant opposition among Chappaquiddick residents to a wireless phone tower.

“We put together some things we thought were important,” said Margaret Knight, who served on the committee. “The committee focused on impact. There was consensus, they didn’t want a tower, it was too big an impact on the island. Little place, big tower.”

The selectmen’s decision to accept the only bid submitted is only a step in the process. “It’s not a finished product, it’s a start, for us to negotiate with,” planning board assistant Georgianna Greenough said. “They awarded the applicant the right to come in and start negotiating.”

Included in the bid is an offer of an annual payment to the town of $18,000 for the right to use town owned facilities and rights of way. The town could realize additional income from phone companies that sign on to use the system.

Ms. Greenough said income is not the primary consideration for the town, or Chappaquiddick residents. “We were more interested in getting Chappy covered for safety purposes, than we were in making huge amounts of money,” she said.

One question is whether mobile phone carriers would sign up to use the network once it is constructed. Only one company, AT&T has so far signed up to use a recently competed DAS in the towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark.

Island infrastructure

In its joint proposal, Broadband Service Group, Inc. said it has built more than 400 DAS systems throughout the United States, including a system that covers San Diego, California, with a population of $2.8 million, and Medina, Washington, an exclusive residential community whose most famous homeowner is Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

“The project is pretty unique because of how important it is to have communication,” Randy Lord, president of the company, said in a conversation with The Times on Wednesday. “There is a benefit for first responders. With the hurricanes and storm potential, that’s pretty significant.”

Mr. Lord said he is sensitive to residents concerned about the impact of the DAS infrastructure on Chappaquiddick. He has visited the Island in recent weeks to gauge the viability of a DAS system. “It’s going to be pretty non-obtrusive,” he said. “When you’re doing stuff on the Vineyard, you gauge it toward the environment. We’re going to do whatever the town accepts or prefers. We’ll work closely with them. They’re driving the cosmetics, as long as the cost doesn’t get completely out of hand.”

The timeline for building a DAS mobile phone system on Chappaquiddick is a matter of months, Mr. Lord said. Town officials expect the system to be operating by next summer, at the latest.

But the most critical factor for moving forward will depend on mobile phone companies. Mr. Lord said that the project will not be viable unless the a large mobile phone company such as Verizon or AT&T commits in advance to pay for use of the infrastructure.

Grain Communications Group, Inc. is familiar with Martha’s Vineyard. Some years ago, the company built a new communications tower on Peaked Hill in Chilmark, used for Coast Guard radio communications. The managing partner and founder of the company is David Grain, who has a number of ties to New England and Martha’s Vineyard. He owns a home in Chilmark, according to property records. He is a 1984 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, and a 1989 graduate of the Tuck School at Dartmouth College.

In its joint proposal, Grain Communications said the company focuses on managing the entire build process, including site location, ground leases, zoning, permitting and construction. The company builds, owns, and manages communications systems throughout the United States.

A Grain company official did not return a phone call requesting comment.

How it works

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 mobile telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less than with taller towers, the DAS appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome and wireless telephone service is poor.

Depending on topography and equipment, a DAS node may have a cellular signal range that extends from one quarter to three quarters of a mile.

The design for Chappaquiddick is very preliminary. The company would initially provide eight nodes in the first phase and five in the second. The network is expected to provide wireless coverage from Cape Poge Light to the On Time ferry slip and southeast to Wasque Point.

The companies have not determined yet whether they can lease space on existing utility poles, or would need to erect their own poles. Also in question is the use of NSTAR conduits under the harbor. Company officials say they have the directional drilling equipment to install their own conduits under the harbor, if they cannot work out an agreement to lease space from NSTAR.

Up-Island signal improves

Edgartown residents need only drive up Island to view a DAS. In May, American Tower Corporation (ATC) threw the switch on its recently completed distributed antenna system.

It was the culmination of a six-year effort by town officials and residents to improve wireless communication in an area of the Island notorious for its lack of wireless signal strength.

There are currently 11 nodes in Chilmark and four in Aquinnah. The wireless signal originates from a hub station placed at the Chilmark landfill off Tabor House Road. ATC has a contract to lease space to AT&T and is seeking other wireless carriers.

Although wireless signals now reach into the formerly dark corners of Moshup Trail, Lobsterville Beach, and Menemsha, large gaps remain between nodes.

In comments last month, ATC senior vice president Gerard Ainsztein said his company looks forward to working with wireless carriers in this market to leverage the network and assist them in improving their service levels to residents.

Verizon Wireless has so far indicated that it wants no part of the up-Island DAS. Rich Enright, a Verizon Wireless official from Westboro, said the company would not join the DAS because the ATC rent was too high. He added that the company would consider creating its own system.

Last year, efforts to complete the system hit a snag when ATC and NSTAR were unable to reach an agreement that would allow ATC to use the power company’s utility poles to string the fiber-optic cable that is the backbone of the DAS system.

Aquinnah originally 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 that towns may place in the way of wireless communication companies seeking to provide service where there is a lack of coverage.

In addition to improving Chappaquiddick wireless service, Edgartown is moving forward with plans to lease space to AT&T in the Katama Farm silo to provide expanded wireless service to the Katama area.