Island officials dispute OpenCape plan for technology upgrade

A fiber optic and microwave broadband network connects the Cape and Islands to improved communications services. — Photo by OpenCape

Island officials reacted strongly and critically this week to statements from OpenCape CEO Dan Gallagher about the construction of a high capacity fiber optic and microwave network on the Cape and islands, intended to dramatically upgrade communications for local towns, schools, and public safety groups.

OpenCape is nearing completion of the network, and many communities on Cape Cod and Nantucket are moving quickly to take advantage of the new technology, while no towns on Martha’s Vineyard are involved.

The microwave link will not provide as much communications capacity as the fiber-optic part of the network on Cape Cod, but will be substantially faster and provide more bandwidth than is currently available on the Island, according to Mr. Gallagher.

Mr. Gallagher conceded that OpenCape communicated poorly with Island technology officials when the project began, but he defended his contention that no Martha’s Vineyard officials responded to his attempts to form a working group to collaborate on the project, or to his request to appoint an Island respresentative to the OpenCape board of directors.

Two of OpenCape’s harshest critics charged that Mr. Gallagher was untruthful and disingenuous when he said Island officials did not respond his June 2010 letter asking for points of contact to form the working group. They later said that they did not think it necessary to respond because OpenCape already had that information, based on a prior meeting here on the Island.

West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel gave The Times records of two meetings and several email communications between representatives of Open Cape and West Tisbury and Chilmark technology stakeholders, prior to Mr. Gallagher’s letter.

They said by the time Mr. Gallagher asked for information to form a working group, West Tisbury officials had already determined the project was not adequate to serve the technology needs of the Island.

“This has been a miserable business with OpenCape, making it sound like it’s the Vineyard’s fault,” Mr. Knabel said in a phone interview. He said OpenCape designed an inadequate microwave link to Martha’s Vineyard, in order to improve its chances to get $40 million in state and federal grants.

“The point system that was used to evaluate the grants was rigged in their favor,” Mr. Knable said. “They were basically using us. Were we consulted before they designed the system? No, we weren’t.”

Bruce Stone, town accountant for West Tisbury who also serves as co-IT director, was involved in early meetings with OpenCape representatives. “We were eagerly interested in participating and discovered we weren’t really being involved in a way that was beneficial to the town,” he said. “Some of the comments of them trying to work with us are not true.”

In a Letter to the Editor in today’s Times (Page 13), Mr. Knabel asserted that the reason few Island towns have moved to take advantage of the communications network, which will be completed in January of 2013, is because OpenCape designed and built the network without understanding the technology needs of the Island. The result is an inadequate plan, the selectman said.

“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,” Mr. Knabel wrote in his letter. “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.”

In a phone interview this week, Mr. Gallagher said much of the dispute stems from poor communication or miscommunication in the infancy of the project. He said OpenCape is a nonprofit organization operated by volunteers working nights and weekends, and they did not adequately convey the details of the project to Island officials.

“Remember, we’re a bunch of volunteers,” Mr. Gallagher said. “We put this together as best we could on our own time. We didn’t have the capacity to go out and reach out to every board of selectmen. We did what we could with the resources we had.”

He said the federal and state grants awarded to OpenCape were based on the merit of the applications. Two private companies, competing to bring a fiber-optic cable to the Island, also applied for grants. Among them was GCPS, a company that has worked with the town of Tisbury on a private project to lay fiber-optic cable from the mainland to Martha’s Vineyard. Mr. Gallagher disputed the assertion of several Island officials that the grants awarded to OpenCape denied the private companies a chance to bring fiber-optic cable to the Island.

“They were denied those grants,” Mr. Gallagher said. “It wasn’t because of us that they didn’t get them; it was because the grant applications were not considered worthy. Frankly, we could have got the grants without including either Island. We fashioned a grant that would serve not only Martha’s Vineyard, but all of Southeastern Massachusetts.”

Mr. Gallagher said he agrees with Island officials that a fiber-optic connection to the mainland is the best solution for expanding technology infrastructure for the Islands. He said OpenCape opted for a microwave connection because it was not possible to complete the complex environmental permitting needed to lay an underwater cable, or conduit, in the time alloted. Under the conditions of the grant, the project must be completed and operating by January 31, 2013.

Island officials say a microwave connection will not be reliable in a weather emergency such as a hurricane. Mr. Gallagher said the microwave link will connect to the Island on a privately owned communications tower in Edgartown that is rated by the Federal Communications Commission to withstand a category 3 hurricane. He said if antenna equipment is damaged it can be replaced quickly.

He said Island officials asked him to change the project, or set aside money for a fiber-optic cable, but OpenCape has no authority to alter the conditions of the grant funding.

“They want what they want, not what I’m constrained to do,” Mr. Gallagher said. “OpenCape is not the end, it’s the beginning. OpenCape may be willing to help. We know how this works, how to build it, how you get the money. If they would work together with us, without specific individuals working for specific interests, we could help them get fiber to the Island.”