After all, OpenCape left the Vineyard out

To the Editor:

One might easily conclude, after reading Steve Myrick’s front page feature, [Island towns lag in move to high-speed coms network, September 13], that Island officials are incapable of recognizing the golden opportunity to upgrade digital communication presented by the OpenCape project.

OpenCape is a $40M ($32 million federal, $8 million state) project to build a fiber-optic spine from Providence to Provincetown to create access to high-speed, broadband Internet service to Cape towns, libraries, schools, and public safety agencies. The Island, however, was always a stepchild, an afterthought, in this process, and continues to be.

I became aware of the OpenCape effort almost by accident in late 2009, while I was serving as West Tisbury’s representative to an up-Island tri-town committee seeking to improve cell phone service using a distributed antenna system (DAS). After I acquainted myself with the specifics of OpenCape, I shared what I had learned with other officials, and the response from most, if not all, was, “What are you talking about?” I was far from the last to find out about it.

The history of the Island’s relationship to OpenCape over the past three years is more complex than the scenario painted in Mr. Myrick’s piece. The assertion by Dan Gallagher, outgoing OpenCape CEO, as reported, that “Not a single Island official responded” to a 2010 invitation “to designate a person as point of contact, to plan how the new technology could improve digital communication,” is not only untrue, but largely beside the point.

West Tisbury, as well as Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, Dukes County, and the superintendent of schools all participated in meetings with OpenCape project officials on June 1, 2010 (some had participated in earlier meetings), either at the West Tisbury School, or in Edgartown later that day. A total of 12 people attended the meeting at the West Tisbury School, nine of whom were from the Island. The other three represented OpenCape or RCN, the company building the system. West Tisbury was represented by our two information technology people (the town treasurer and town accountant) and our town administrator. The nine were clearly the point people Mr. Gallagher now asserts don’t exist.

At that meeting, all nine Island participants asserted that they had never received any prior communications from OpenCape, and the OpenCape representatives acknowledged that their communications had not been sent to the appropriate people. In a subsequent July 2010 letter, Mr. Gallagher even apologized for that oversight and vowed to do better. (see below)

If anything, Mr. Gallagher has it the wrong way around: it’s not that the Island wasn’t responsive to invitations from OpenCape, it’s that OpenCape designed the whole project and submitted its stimulus grant proposal without any serious upfront collaboration with the Island. By the time of the June, 2010 meeting, it was late in the game for Island officials to indicate what they wanted from OpenCape. By then the system was designed, and the resources to build it were already allocated. The Island had gotten the short end of the stick, without its knowledge. Rather than an underwater fiber-optic link with the mainland and a fiber-optic distribution network, which is what the Island needed, and still needs, OpenCape planned only a line-of-sight microwave link from Falmouth, which, in the judgment of many officials, offers no real advantage to the Island.

At the very least, Mr. Gallagher has a selective memory regarding OpenCape’s relationship with the Vineyard. He wrote a signed letter on July 1, 2010, on OpenCape’s letterhead, a three-page, single spaced letter to unspecified recipients. It begins with: “Re: OpenCape Coordination with Island Officials for Infrastructure Improvement.” It then says, “I am writing you in order to ensure that a common message is delivered to all of the stake holders of Martha’s Vineyard regarding the OpenCape project.”

By July 1, 2010, the OpenCape project had been in the works for more than two years, and only at that late date was it deemed necessary to “ensure…a common message…” to the Vineyard?

On page two of his letter he states, in part:

“OpenCape is the product of volunteer work…Dukes County officials attended two conferences hosted by OpenCape. Dukes County, Tisbury, and the private company GPCS met with OpenCape for an in depth discussion in 2009, and Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools provided a letter of support and offer of their facilities to OpenCape in 2007. Unfortunately, our small group of volunteers did not have the capacity to engage every official body in the planning process, as much as we would have liked.

“A few of our volunteers, accompanied by the private company that will build the OpenCape network, visited some locations on the Vineyard in June, 2010. It became very clear during that visit that OpenCape needs to make a greater effort to ensure the concerns of a broader group of Vineyard officials is included in our final implementation on the Island.

“The past level of engagement with Island officials was not what it needed to be. We hope that you will accept our apology for that failing and know it was not a slight, but simply our lack of capacity as a small group of volunteers. We hope that moving forward we will be able to work closely together to ensure the best result for Martha’s Vineyard.”

While such a mea culpa is certainly welcome, it’s unclear that communications between OpenCape and the Island improved thereafter.

There are other ready explanations for why Island officials cooled to further involvement with OpenCape after June, 2010. By then GPCS, one of the private companies then attempting to build a fiber-optic spine on the Island, released an engineering report indicating the OpenCape microwave link with Falmouth was inadequate in both speed and capacity to be of much use to the Island in upgrading digital communications. OpenCape subsequently denied that was the case.

The more important and obvious problem with OpenCape’s plan for the Island was that in the absence of an Island-wide fiber-optic network, its intended microwave stations here were dead ends. They connected to nothing. OpenCape had no intention of using any of its $40M to build a fiber-optic network here as it was doing on the Cape, or for providing an underwater fiber-optic connection from the mainland, either of which would provide a major upgrade in speed, capacity, and bandwidth. Had there been collaboration before its system was designed and the grant proposal submitted, perhaps those necessary elements to improving digital communications here might now be becoming a reality.

It might be too harsh to accuse Mr. Gallagher of being disingenuous, given his admission of poor communication. However, upon investigation it does seem that by originally proposing microwave links to the West Tisbury School, the firehouse on Chappaquiddick, and to the electricity-free former leper colony on Penikese Island, as underserved or un-served areas, OpenCape achieved a leg up in the rating system used in awarding the federal stimulus money. The connection points have changed much for the better, but there is still no Island-wide fiber-optic network to connect with.

A cynic might even say that OpenCape never had any intention to provide real high-speed communication capability to the Island, that inclusion of the Vineyard was merely a thinly veiled pretext to exploit the funding process in order to build on the Cape what we continue to need here.

Richard Knabel

Selectman

West Tisbury