Chappaquiddick residents air wireless concerns to Edgartown selectmen

Edgartown selectmen Monday listened to Chappaquiddick residents express concerns about a lack of wireless phone service. — Photo by Rich Saltzberg

A large group of Chappaquiddick residents aired their concerns about spotty wireless telephone reception on the small island and the need to improve coverage at a meeting with Edgartown selectmen Monday night. One overriding question remained: whether to continue to pursue a distributed antenna system (DAS) or turn efforts to erecting a more conventional tower in the Island’s easternmost community.

Many of those who spoke framed the issue as one of public safety. The danger of spotty service resulting in the failure of emergency transmissions was a recurring theme in audience anecdotes and statements.

The Chappaquiddick Wireless Committee has directed its efforts towards a DAS , which relies on a network of small antennas, often placed on utility poles, as an alternative to conventional towers. In June 2012, selectmen accepted the only response to a request for proposals (RFP) to build and operate a DAS on Chappaquiddick. In a joint venture, Grain Communications Group, Inc. of Sarasota, Florida, and Broadband Service Group, Inc., a Michigan-based company, submitted the proposal, which was also expected to provide high-speed data communications, in addition to voice. But the developers were unable to attract any mobile carriers to sign up.

Much of the discussion Monday night focused on the scope and merits of the committee’s current RFP and its limited scope focused on DAS. Responding to an overwhelming show of hands in support, the selectmen agreed to expand the RFP in order to explore “other systems,” presumably towers.

During the discussion, wireless committee member Bob Gurnitz laid the blame for the delay in the sole focus on DAS. Mr. Gurnitz said that DAS had no appeal to cell providers due to its cost and reliability and such a system only had the support of a minority of residents.

In a followup email, Mr. Gurnitz told The Times, “The selectmen appeared to be very much in support of the direction suggested by the clear majority of those in attendance and we look forward to an expedited process which will result in high quality cell service on Chappy. Besides being an issue of convenience, lack of such service is clearly a public safety issue.”

Roger Becker, president of the Chappaquiddick Island Association and a member of the Wireless Committee, disagreed. Mr. Becker said the selectmen’s desire for a conventional tower on town-owned land was at the root of the delay.

“I was able to get my neighbors to email and request the selectmen get input from Chappy residents before moving ahead with plans for such a tower,” Mr. Becker said in a followup email to The Times. “It was easy to see the DAS was far superior in every way to the over-height tower as we were advised by a consultant hired by the town to get cell coverage for underserved areas of Edgartown, Katama and Chappy. The issue for Chappy is simply this: the cell providers aren’t interested in coming here because the demand for connection is very small. The signals from the tower in Edgartown cover the island to Sampson’s hill in the middle of the island leaving only about 300 houses without a signal and the beaches.”

While stating no preference, Chris Kennedy, the Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent for The Trustees of the Reservations, the conservation group that owns or manages much of the island’s extensive beachfront, highlighted the safety concerns. Mr. Kennedy said there is no reliable cell phone signal on the beaches from Wasque to Cape Poge and calls are routinely dropped or garbled, which could cost valuable minutes in an emergency.

In other business Monday,  selectmen accepted with regrets a notice of retirement from longtime Edgartown Police sergeant Ken Johnson. Prior to adjournment, selectmen canceled the August 18 meeting due to an anticipated lack of quorum.