Verizon signs on to up-Island small antennae wireless system

In the past, Menemsha Harbor had notoriously poor wireless coverage. AT&T customers experienced a dramatic turnaround last year. Now Verizon is on board. — File photo by Susan Safford

Up-Island Verizon wireless customers may soon see more coveted signal bars along with improved reception in areas of Chilmark and Aquinnah where the company had formerly been unable to provide cell phone service. For AT&T, there is new competition.

Verizon plans to join a distributed antenna system (DAS) that the American Tower Corporation (ATC) erected in Aquinnah and Chilmark and powered up last year, town officials confirmed. Until last month, AT&T was ATC’s only DAS subscriber.

ATC also plans to expand its up-Island DAS by adding three additional antennas where coverage is now spotty, Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll said the company will add two on North Road and one on South Road.

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 than with taller towers, the DAS appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome and wireless telephone service is poor.

There are 11 nodes in Chilmark and four in Aquinnah. AT&T wireless coverage now extends along Moshup Trail and into the port of Menemsha. 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.

Tuesday, Mr. Carroll told The Times that ATC expects to have Verizon up and running by June 1. He said residents are happy about the prospects for better Verizon wireless service, “and it will bring competition.”

Adam Wilson, Aquinnah town administrator, said it is good news that the ATC plan to attract other carriers is coming to fruition. “I think there will be a snowball effect within a short time,” he said.

The wireless signal originates from a hub station placed at the Chilmark landfill off Tabor House Road. ATC leases space on its system to wireless carriers.

Progress is made

The addition of Verizon represents a turnaround in the company’s attitude towards the ATC network.

One year ago, Verizon Wireless said it wanted no part of the up-Island DAS. One Verizon Wireless official said the company would not join the DAS because the ATC rent was too high and that it was considering creating its own system.

Mr. Carroll, the recent point man in the DAS effort, told The Times that he thinks public pressure and publicity led Verizon to change its position on the ATC system, years in development.

In a letter dated May 2 addressed to Mr. Carroll under the heading, “progress update for Martha’s Vineyard outdoor distributed antenna system,” ATC area vice president Jeffrey S. Baker said, “We have been actively working to attract the next carrier and are pleased to report we have reached an agreement with Verizon Wireless.”

Mr. Baker said Verizon would utilize the 15 existing antenna locations and had engaged ATC to construct three more. “The additional antenna locations will expand the coverage footprint to reach an even broader area than the system currently provides for,” Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Baker did not return a message left on his voice mail.

“Verizon Wireless recently turned on its voice service in the Aquinnah service area and is continuing to work with vendors to activate 4G LTE data services as quickly as possible,” Rich Enright, Director of Network Performance New England for Verizon Wireless, said in a statement to The Times. “Additional projects on Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are also underway to enhance service. In 2012, Verizon Wireless completed $256 million in wireless network enhancements across New England, increasing the company’s regional network investment to more than $3.3 billion since its inception in 2000.”

West Tisbury cell tower on tap

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.

West Tisbury joined Aquinnah and Chilmark in the discussions. But plans for a tri-town agreement were put aside when West Tisbury town officials and residents disagreed about permitting requirements and the extent of the wireless communication benefits the system would provide in a town with existing towers.

Chilmark and Aquinnah forged ahead without West Tisbury.

In February 2010, Chilmark and Aquinnah officials signed a contract with ATC to build a DAS that when fully completed could include 55 nodes.

The contract called for ATC to pay Chilmark $14,000 in rent annually for hosting the hub station and make payments to the towns of $600 per pole per carrier, dependent on the number of carriers and the minimum number of nodes, or antenna transmitters, used throughout the system.

In West Tisbury, in 2011 Verizon Wireless signed a lease with a private property owner for part of his property in a heavily wooded area off New Lane to erect a tower the company said is needed to boost cell phone coverage in West Tisbury’s dead zone. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission approved the tower on April 4, 2013.

The West Tisbury zoning board of appeals will hold a public hearing on the tower on Thursday, June 6.