Chappy residents target Comcast CEO and President Obama in ads

The island of Chappaquiddick on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard is without cable service. — File photo by Bill Brine

This week, members of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) amped up efforts to obtain high-speed Internet, cable TV, and land lines for residents of the small island at the east end of Martha’s Vineyard. Their direct plea to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and President Barack Obama is being made in ads scheduled to be published in both Island newspapers.

The ad published in The Times features a cross-section of 31 familiar Chappy residents in a collection of 23 photos under the headline, “President Obama and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, help bring high speed Comcast communications to Chappaquiddick residents, businesses, and school kids.” The ad was paid for by the CIA. A similar ad is scheduled to appear in the Vineyard Gazette.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to reach Mr. Roberts while he’s on the Island, with his friend the president, and to put a friendly ad in the paper to help bring world-class Comcast service to Chappaquiddick,” Lionel Spiro, former CIA president said over his buzzing landline in an interview with The Times. “Our hope is Mr. Roberts will make inquiries to his people and perhaps someone on the president’s staff will see it as well.”

On Monday, the White House announced the formation of the United States Digital Service. “I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives,” the President said, according to a White House press release.

Long time coming

Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block during negotiations 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 sparsely populated Chappaquiddick. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy as part of a separate deal, and in January 2013, the six towns endorsed an Island-wide agreement with Comcast.

The first benchmark of the deal that Comcast struck with Chappy required that 270 letters of commitment be on file at Edgartown National Bank, escrow agent for the deal, by October 1, 2013. The letter did not require any financial obligations, but gave Comcast permission to survey each homeowner’s property to determine if additional charges would be added to the minimum installation fee of $2,139 the cable giant said it needed to make the deal feasible. It also required each homeowner to commit to two years of basic cable at  $24.60 a month. A core group of Chappy residents campaigned relentlessly and 294 letters were on file at the bank by the October 1 deadline.

The next deadline of the multi-step deal required at least 270 deposits to be on the books at Edgartown National Bank by July 21. On July 11, there were 92 deposits at the bank. But proponents were given a reprieve when Comcast moved the deposit deadline back to March 1, 2015.

“Representatives from Comcast and Edgartown have stayed in constant communication during this process and we continue to offer assistance and have voluntarily extended the deadline in the hopes of the project moving forward,” Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said in an email to The Times on Monday. Comcast has also indicated that some families with children will qualify for high-speed Internet services at a reduced cost of $9.95 per month.

Long way to go

To help homeowners who can’t afford the high up-front cost, a group of Chappy residents established the nonprofit Chappaquiddick Community Fund (CCF). The Board of Directors of the CCF includes Dick Chasin, CIA president Roger Becker, Cynthia Hubbard, Woody Filley, Peter Getsinger, Travis Jacobs, and Mr. Spiro.

“The long-range purpose of the CCF is 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,” Mr. Spiro said in an email to The Times. “The application to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also described the need to raise funds to help pay for the cost of cabling under town roads.”

Thus far, members of the Chappaquiddick community have committed $200,000 to make up any shortfall on the required 270 deposits, a total of $577,530, if needed.

As of this past Friday, the Edgartown National Bank reported 130 deposits on the books. According to Mr. Spiro, 16 households who have agreed to financial assistance from CCF haven’t sent in their deposit yet. He also said that Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby has indicated she has another 10 to 15 deposits on hand. Adding in people who didn’t send in letters by October 1 and have since changed their minds, along with a significant number of new homeowners on Chappy, Mr. Spiro estimates that there are up to 193 funded commitments at present.

“This is not guaranteed,” he said. “However, there are about 80 more who sent letters last summer and whose intentions we do not know.”
The Times asked Mr. Goodman if the deal could move forward now that the deposits are guaranteed by the CCF. “While we’re open to the association contributing towards the construction cost, the agreement requires the commitment of 270 Chappaquiddick residents to have Comcast service for at least two years,” he replied in an email.

The CIA more recently said that there are two to three miles of road on Chappy that do not need to be cabled because residents along these stretches have indicated they do not want the service.

“We propose this as a way to reduce the initial investment, thereby meeting their return on investment needs,” Mr. Spiro said, adding, “We still stand ready to pay Comcast $2,139 for each house short of the required 270.”

Not everyone on Chappy is concerned about bringing Comcast services to Chappy. “One of the reasons people come to Chappy is the serenity and the wilderness,” seasonal resident Jay Hunter said in a recent interview 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, and the TV or the computer weren’t on once. There were too many other things to do.”

Mr. Hunter also questioned the current strategy from a technological angle. “Communication is going to be wireless, that’s the direction technology is going,” he said. “This technology is going to be obsolete well before the deal is over.”