At a packed meeting on Monday, August 17, Edgartown selectmen agreed to give the Chappaquiddick wireless committee two months to research whether a wireless tower or a distributed antenna system (DAS) would better suit the island, which has spotty and sometimes nonexistent cell reception.
Selectmen, acting on a suggestion by town information technology (IT) manager Adam Darack, asked the committee to survey Chappy residents on the two options.
The committee, commissioned in June, was given two months to explore three areas: whether they could find carrier interest in a DAS system; to continue due diligence on how a fiber backbone could be built for the system; and to more broadly research and report on DAS as a solution.
In June, selectmen accepted a proposal from Grain Communications Group of Sarasota, Fla., and Washington, D.C., to build a cell tower, but fierce and divided opposition from Chappy residents led to resurrection of the wireless committee.
Grain was selected in June 2012 to build a DAS system on Chappy, as recommended by the first wireless committee, but the plan 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 request for proposals, issued in October 2014, didn’t limit the scope of technology. The company proposed a 150- to 180-foot monopole, possibly disguised as a flagpole.
Chappaquiddick residents are concerned that a cell tower would interfere with the island’s natural aesthetics.
DAS technically viable
Woody Filley, Chappy resident and former Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School IT director, chaired the committee and presented its findings on Monday evening.
Mr. Filley told selectmen that Verizon was now exploring a potential DAS system. In July, the committee met with Richard Enright, Verizon Director of Engineering of the Northeast Division, who conducted a site visit on Chappy with the committee. The wireless committee is waiting for the plan before its viability can be assessed.
“So, right now he’s in the process of designing a DAS for Chappy,” Mr. Filley said. “He’s had a first shot at it, but he’s going back and forth. It’s an ongoing process.”
As for a fiber backbone for a DAS system, the committee researched a suggestion in June that Comcast might be willing to allow a DAS to be built on the hardware the company is currently installing on Chappy to provide cable. Roger Becker, a wireless committee member and DAS advocate, proposed the idea. However, Mr. Filley said that Comcast is not interested.
“Comcast is not considering any other fiber projects on Chappaquiddick,” Mr. Filley said, reading from a letter from Comcast. “Our sole purpose is to provide Comcast service to residents.”
Mr. Filley told selectmen that the committee also worked with Andy Farrissey, president of Farrissey Tele-Comm, Inc., a utility services contractor based in Oak Bluffs. Mr. Farrissey is exploring how a fiber backbone could be constructed on Chappy.
“In the end, DAS is, yes, technically a potential solution,” Mr. Filley said. He stressed that financing and a timelines have yet to be determined.
As for AT&T, the company said they do not have interest in DAS on the island. They would be inclined, however, to lease space on the tower proposed by Grain.
What the community wants
Mr. Filley told selectmen that one of the largest challenges the committee faced was uncertainty about what the community actually wanted. Even residents at the meeting Monday evening were passionately divided, making it difficult to see where the lines were drawn between favoring DAS or a cellular tower.
“The biggest difference of opinion by people on the committee is the perceived support or lack thereof within the community for a tower proposed by Grain,” Mr. Filley said. “So, without some of that data, we really have a hard time figuring out what would be the cost or the time for construction. It’s very difficult to gauge the viability for DAS in comparison with what seemingly could be the timeframe for a tower. We really don’t have any strong data on what the community-level support is.”
Mr. Filley pointed out that though a DAS system could take a long time to construct, the debate about a tower could take just as long.
“If it’s a long, drawn-out debate for a tower, then for a DAS, it may be a situation where the timeframe becomes less of a negative,” Mr. Filley said.
With that, Mr. Darack told selectmen that to make a decision about what infrastructure should be constructed right now wouldn’t be the wisest course of action.
Mr. Darack said that he believed the town needed to continue to push Verizon to devise its plan as they said they would. Further, he told selectmen that he spoke with Grain and AT&T and was assured that if the town pushed a decision off for another two months, that both companies would still be interested in the proposed tower project.
Mr. Darack said the town needed to speak with residents to get an idea of what tower design and location would be acceptable, if a tower were to be built. He said that part of that needs to include where coverage would actually be provided.
“So you’re more or less saying you need some more time and you’re hoping to keep this group together for a few more weeks or months?” asked selectmen chairman Michael Donaroma.
“Yes. I would say two months,” Mr. Darack said.
The room was largely quiet for a moment until wireless committee member Bob Gurnitz stood up with a packet of maps that illustrated where service would be provided based on different DAS and tower models.
“The bottom line is that a DAS system is not going to work. The reason it is not going to work is shown on the chart we were given by Verizon for an 11-node system, which barely covers the main parts [of Chappaquiddick],” Mr. Gurnitz said.
“That’s the first step,” wireless committee member Jonathan Cobb member interjected from the back of the room.
“Let me talk,” Mr. Gurnitz said.
“Don’t mislead people about what you’re showing them,” Mr. Cobb responded.
Mr. Donaroma told Mr. Cobb he could speak after Mr. Gurnitz was done.
Mr. Gurnitz continued, explaining that the first DAS plan alone was estimated to cost $3 million. “If we had to triple the numbers, you can multiply by three,” he said.
Mr. Gurnitz urged the town to move forward with the most immediate and cost-efficient option: a tower. “We’ve been at this study for four and a half years now,” he said. “We finally have someone, in the hands of Grain and AT&T, who said they’ll go forward. AT&T says that somehow or another, they’ll have the money. They’ll take it from somewhere else. They’re interested in getting started. We’ve got to move on with it. We can study and study and study…, If we go ahead and give Grain a contract or whoever you choose to give it to, and AT&T works with them, there’s still plenty of time. They’re going to come back with proposals.”
In later comments, Mr. Cobb said that Nantucket, which he said has 55 antennas, and Chilmark, which has 18, are both successfully utilizing DAS networks. He also said that Chappaquiddick residents with Comcast will have cell service anywhere on the island.
Run DAS to ground
“What was presented today is pretty new information, at least for us,” selectman Art Smadbeck said. “The DAS system was dead on arrival last year. We were told it can’t be done. Now we find out not only can it be done, but there is also a viable company in Verizon. That changes things. If they need a couple of extra months just to run that to ground, considering that I think, and this is just an observation and I could be wrong, that there would be less opposition to a DAS system than to a tower, then we should try to let them run that to the ground.”
At the conclusion of the public hearing, Chappy residents burst into discussion among themselves, causing a disruption in the regular meeting. Selectmen had to wait a few minutes to get back to business.
Once it calmed down, Mr. Donaroma and his fellow selectmen assessed the next step.
Mr. Donaroma brought up the fact that lack of cell coverage affects more than just Chappaquiddick residents. “It’s also the in-town people who either want or don’t want to look at a tower,” he said. “Or the in-town people who want to go to Chappy and have cell coverage. You can’t just focus this on the people of Chappaquiddick, either.”
“I think it might help if there was a design of the tower, what it might look like,” said selectman Margaret Serpa.