Chappaquiddick DAS draws no wireless takers

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Chappaquiddick wireless committee told Edgartown selectmen at their Monday meeting that no mobile phone carrier has committed to offer service as part of a DAS (distributed antenna system) that would dramatically improve mobile phone coverage without a conventional tower on Chappaquiddick.

The town awarded a joint contract in June 2012 to Grain Communications and Broadband Service Group to build and manage the system, which relies on small antennas set on poles, but the developers have been unable to attract any mobile carriers to sign up.

The wireless committee asked selectmen to appeal to state and federal elected leaders. “We need your help to motivate the cellular service providers to join our planned facility and bring coverage to Chappaquiddick Island,” wireless committee member Georgiana Greenough wrote in a letter the committee proposed that selectmen send to elected leaders.

Selectman Art Smadbeck said he was confused and puzzled why mobile phone carriers like AT&T and Verizon would not want to offer service, noting that utilities usually pursue the town to offer service.

Committee member Roger Becker said the more expensive DAS technology and communication with the mobile carriers is the problem. “We’re really not getting any communication with these companies,” he said. “They hide behind a layer of two or three subcontractors. These larger companies are not interested in 2,000 to 3,000 people at the end of the world.”

Ms. Greenough pointed out that there has been interest from those companies in building a conventional mobile phone network.

“They would be very happy to build a tower,” Ms. Greenough said.

Selectmen voted to sign the letter and send it to U.S. Senators John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Representative Bill Keating, State Senator Dan Wolf, and State Representative Tim Madden.

“I’ll be happy to sign the letter, but I don’t want this to be a last gasp,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “I would like to see it as a next step.”

An earlier proposal to use town-owned property for a conventional cell tower met stiff resistance from Chappaquiddick residents. At that point the wireless committee moved instead toward a DAS system.

Should a wireless company want to pursue a tower, a Chappy landowner with sufficient setbacks could enter into a private agreement.

That has occurred in West Tisbury where resident Robert Doane signed a contract with Verizon to lease a heavily wooded part of his property off New Lane for a tower.

Last Thursday, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission held a hearing on the Verizon tower that attracted considerable opposition.

Mr. Doane said Verizon contacted him by letter about four years ago with the proposal, which the company said is needed to boost cell phone coverage in West Tisbury’s dead zone.

Several years ago, West Tisbury fell out of a joint plan with neighboring Chilmark and Aquinnah to create a distributed antenna system. Chilmark and Aquinnah went ahead on their own. To date, only AT&T is on the system. Verizon Wireless has so far indicated that it wants no part of the up-Island DAS due to the cost of the rent.

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 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 efforts to improve 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.

The Edgartown planning board is expected to conclude a hearing on that proposal when it meets February 5.