The hard fought and sometimes fractious campaign to bring Comcast high speed Internet/cable TV/phone service to Chappaquiddick appeared as though it was about to hit a wall in the form of a Monday, July 21, deadline by which at least 270 homeowners were required to pay Comcast a minimum installation fee of $2,139, which the cable giant said it needs to make its $1.58 million initial investment to wire the tiny island commercially viable.
However, island proponents of the multi-step deal fashioned by Edgartown officials were recently given a boost when the cable giant moved the deposit deadline back to March 1, 2015. If Comcast had stuck to the original deadline, the prospect for cable on Chappy would be extremely dim.
According to residents involved with negotiations, as of Wednesday, July 16, there were 92 deposits on the books.
The deadline has been extended in part because there was so much sturm und drang surrounding the previous benchmark of 270 commitment letters by October 1, 2013.
The commitment letter required no payment from the homeowner. It simply gave Comcast permission to survey their “dwelling unit” to determine if logistical complications, namely the distance from the main cable under Chappaquiddick road, would require additional charges above the $2,139 deposit.
“The deadline extension was mutually agreed upon in the spirit of cooperation as we continue to work with Edgartown leaders in our efforts to have Comcast serve the island of Chappaquiddick,” Comcast cable spokesman Marc Goodman said Wednesday in a phone call with The Times.
In the meantime, cable proponents hope they can enlist more signups from people who were initially uneasy about sending in a commitment letter or were simply unaware of what it entailed.
Woody Filley, Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) utilities committee member, said in a phone call with The Times that 294 people sent in commitment letters by last year’s October 1 deadline.
He said there are another 140 homeowners that were not part of the initial commitment letter inventory. Comcast is going to allow those people another opportunity to sign a commitment letter. Once signed, Comcast will send out engineers to evaluate the installation charges. At that time, homeowners can decide whether they would like to place a deposit for service.
By July 2013, there were only a handful of commitment letters on file, due in part to confusion over the terms. Some residents thought that the letter left them vulnerable to an open-ended financial commitment. Some proponents of the deal thought the Comcast estimate of “dwelling units” contained guest houses and detached garages, thus making the goal more difficult to reach. Comcast denied appeals for a recount.
At the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) annual meeting in July 2013, it was apparent that the Comcast commitment letter had created a great deal of confusion. Many people were put off by the brief missive which stated that each homeowner had to sign up for for two years of basic cable in addition to paying the Aid in Construction Fee (AIC) of at least $2,139. But over the next two months, the tide turned.
That 294 letters of commitment were tallied at Edgartown National Bank on October 1 was a testament to a core group of people on the CIA utilities committee, headed by Mr. Filley, a technology teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, who relentlessly worked the phones and bent ears whenever and wherever they could. Chappy ferry owner Peter Wells, a strong advocate of the technology upgrade, kept a running tally on a scoreboard on the Chappy side of the ferry. He was also uniquely situated to lobby his captive audience, in his own genial way.
It’s one thing to get 270 people to send in a letter, it’s another to get them to part with more than $2,100 dollars. Mr. Filley said that while the deadline has been pushed back to March 1, 2015, the goal is still to get 270 deposits in as soon as possible. “The sooner we hit 270, the sooner Comcast gets going,” he said.
Comcast completed its survey of Chappy by March of 2014, and the estimates were sent out. While some proponents thought Comcast might try to get out of the deal with exorbitant AIC fees, very few of the houses that could be wired required additional funds. “Most homes were not to be charged anything but minimal installation fees,” Mr Filley said.
Mr. Filley said lessons have been learned from last year’s commitment letter campaign and changes have been made in the collection process. “We’ve been working with [Edgartown town administrator] Pam Dolby and she’s been taking payments,” he said. “A lot of people have been dropping them off at her office.” Mr Filley said deposits can also be sent to: Town of Edgartown, PO Box 5158, Edgartown, MA, 02539, Attention: Pamela Dolby “Confidential.”
The original Comcast proposal stated that if the required deposits were in by July 21, 2014, Chappy would have a functioning cable system by February 15, 2016.
Banding together for bandwidth
To help Chappy residents who want hi-speed Internet but can’t swing the high up-front cost, some Chappy residents have established the Chappaquiddick Community Fund (CCF). “The long-range purpose of the CCF would be to provide financial help to face a variety of issues and needs that might arise within the Chappy community such as emergency fuel assistance, emergency medical costs and other such needs,” former CIA president Lionel Spiro wrote in an email to The Times. “In addition, our application to the IRS described the need to raise funds to provide Comcast with half their costs of installing cables under town roads. Thus far, various members of the Chappaquiddick community have indicated a willingness to donate as much as $153,000 if needed, for this purpose.”
Mr. Filley advises people who are content with their current Internet service with Verizon or ChappyWISP to consider the explosive pace of technology growth. “This is not just going to fix a problem for a year. This is going to be a long-term improvement to the infrastructure,” Mr. Filley said. “Consider how much technology has changed in the past 10 years. Medical technology is exploding on the Internet. That’s especially important for remote areas like Chappy. And look at the convenience that it brings. It wasn’t that long ago when you had to drive to the steamship to get a reservation. Infrastructure decisions are made on anticipated lifestyles instead of present lifestyles.”
To people who resist the deal because they resent having no other choice in cable provider, Mr. Filley says that when it comes to something as crucial as technology, it’s better to have one monopoly than none at all.
Don’t touch that dial
Not everyone on Chappy wants Comcast to come. Seasonal resident Jay Hunter is an outspoken opponent of the deal. “One of the reasons people come to Chappy is the serenity and the wilderness,” he said in a phone call with The Times. “It’s one of the reasons why we’re here, to get away from things you’re inundated with. My bookcase is full of books that actually get read. We go hiking and blueberry picking and fishing. My 26-year-old was just here with a buddy, the TV or the computer weren’t on once.There were too many other things to do.”
Mr. Hunter also questions the current Comcast strategy from a technological angle. “Communication is going to be wireless, that’s the direction technology is going. For now, Chappy WISP works just fine. I was working this morning on the Internet and we stream Netflix no problem.”
Long time coming
The battle to wire Chappy began in early 2011, when negotiations began for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, Comcast said it had no interest in serving the remote, sparsely populated, island on an island. Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block to renewing the Island-wide deal. The CAB and Comcast extended the contract several times over the long and increasingly strained negotiation. In December 2011, Ms. Dolby refused to attend any more meetings until Chappy was included in the conversation. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy, and finally, in late January of 2013, the selectmen from the six towns endorsed a 10-year, Island-wide agreement with Comcast.