Edgartown punts Chappy wireless tower to new committee

Selectmen want the committee will take two months to explore alternatives to building a cell tower on Chappaquiddick.

The Chappy ferry will be out of commission for vehicles on Sunday while repairs are made. — File photo

At a packed meeting on Monday, Edgartown selectmen decided to establish a new committee tasked with exploring alternative solutions to building a wireless tower on Chappaquiddick in order to improve mobile phone service across the small island community.

Faced with strong opposition to a tower from Chappy residents who turned out in force Monday, selectmen agreed to follow the recommendation of town information technology (IT) manager Adam Darack and ask the committee to take two months to come up with a recommendation to the proposal currently on the table.

Last month, selectmen accepted a proposal from Grain Communications Group of Sarasota, FL and Washington, DC to build a cell tower to solve spotty to nonexistent cell reception on the Island’s easternmost community.

It was the second time around for the company which in June 2012 was selected to construct a distributed antenna systems (DAS), as recommended by the first wireless committee, but failed to attract any cell carriers. DAS relies on a series of small antennas often erected on utility poles. It is more costly than a tower and has limited range.

The second RFP, issued in October 2014, didn’t limit the scope of technology. The company proposed a 150-180-foot monopole, possibly disguised as a flagpole.

Chappaquiddick residents are concerned that a cell tower would interfere with the island’s natural aesthetics.

Open process

Mr. Darack opened the discussion Monday evening with a prepared statement, which he read facing the audience. He responded, foremost, to the criticism he said had poured in after his recommendation in May to accept Grain’s cell tower bid.

“Some are accusing the town of not liking the unspoiled view of Chappaquiddick, potentially turning it into the Jersey Shore, and not pursuing a DAS solution similar to Chilmark,” Mr. Darack said. “The wireless committee spent years researching DAS, so it was pursued.”

Mr. Darack rehashed the difficulty the town had in attracting cell carriers to the first RFP.

“Nobody specifically set out for the solution that has been presented, but other options had not proven to be viable for carriers, which is a major crux of the issue.”

Mr. Darack assured the crowd that everyone’s opinions and concerns had been taken into account.

“I read every email the selectmen’s office has received,” he told the crowd.

Mr. Darack cited accusations that the town attempted to hide the second RFP which allowed for bids on cell towers. He said that such accusations were “categorically false,” and that the document was posted to the town website in March. Mr. Darack further denied any attempt to disregard the opinions of summer residents on the topic.

“I read the letters. I simply don’t know who lives where and when. [It] makes no difference to me – if you sent an email, I read it.”

He also told Chappy residents that he did his best to relay all information he had. “Good, bad, or ugly  you have my honesty,” Mr. Darack said.

Kenneth Louard, Director of Business Developments for Grain Communications, also attended Monday night’s meeting.

“Grain is doing this for civic-minded reasons,” Mr. Louard, turning to face those sitting around him, told Chappaquiddick residents. He reminded them that David Grain, president of Grain Communications, has property on the Island and has ties to the community. Mr. Grain, a seasonal Chilmark residents, sits on the board of Sheriffs Meadow Foundation.

“It’s not about the money,” Mr. Louard said.

Discussion repeatedly returned to attracting cellular carriers like Verizon or AT&T.

“We will never build a naked tower,” Mr. Louard said. He also explained that it’s better to have four carrier options on a cell tower to force them to compete with each other.

One potential solution to cell service proposed by Roger Becker, Chappaquiddick Island Association president, is to work with Comcast.

Following years of negotiations, and an agreement by Chappy residents to pick up part of the installation tab, the cable giant agreed to run cable to Chappy and is currently building a fiber optic cable network on the island. Mr. Becker’s idea would be to build a DAS network on the hardware that Comcast is already installing.

Mr. Becker asked town officials what options would exist if in two months there is no carrier. “What happens then?” he asked.

“Then I think we take a look at the process that will have happened,” Mr. Darack said. “Some progress is going to be made somewhere.”

“We’re going to keep going,” Chairman Michael Donaroma said.

Mr. Becker then requested that the selectmen share their opinions on the matter.

“I’m asking you … to tell us if you think an overheight tower should be what’s put on Chappy.”

“No,” Mr. Donaroma immediately responded.

“The question is do people on Chappy want cell service,” selectman Art Smadbeck said. “We were never trying to answer the question of whether we want to put up a tower.”

“If you could get carrier interest in a DAS system,” Mr. Donaroma said, “We’d be fine.”

Working with Comcast

“I don’t have a great understanding of how that works on the technical side of things,” Mr. Darack told The Times on Tuesday morning. “The antennas that would be used would go on the telephone poles and they would somehow use the fiber as a part of the communication…I know that Comcast does have a history of being a part of this sort of solution in other areas. We’re not asking them to do something that’s new.”

Moving forward, Mr. Darack told The Times he is trying to maintain a positive attitude.

“We’ve been sort of accused of trying to push something down people’s throats or rushing something. I think we’re doing the opposite of that. People spoke and they’ve been heard and they’re being reacted to.”

When asked about the feasibility of the alternative proposal, Mr. Darack said that he’d “like to look at it like what can we do, not what can’t we do.”

Abandoned Katama silo

The meeting also provided an opportunity for town officials to update Chappy residents on the status of the placement of a wireless antenna in the unused Katama Farm silo.

After signing a lease and sending in payments, AT&T wireless took no action to install the antenna expected to improve wireless communication in Katama and a section of Chappy.

In response to a question, Georgiana Greenough, planning board assistant, said that the issue was currently with the town counsel but there could be a solution brewing.

“There is another company that wants to come in… AT&T is going to work with the town in the resolution.”

As for a timeline, Ms. Greenough said, “If all the ducks were in a row… they could put up a temporary pole this summer, but we don’t have those answers yet.”