Chappaquiddick residents remain divided as ever over wireless strategy

Despite meetings and studies, a recent survey’s results reveal strong disagreement over the best way to improve cell service on the small island.

Edgartown official endorsed a plan for a temporary wireless tower on Chappy. — File photo by Bill Brine

A survey of Chappaquiddick property owners intended to gauge public opinion about the best way to improve cellular service on the small, easternmost island community indicates that the topic remains as contentious as ever.

The long-running argument is between those who favor a wireless tower and those who want a distributed antenna system (DAS), which relies on a network of small antennas often set on utility poles.

Fierce opposition to a tower and debate about whether it would be appropriate on Chappy has delayed decision-making over the course of a discussion that has spanned more than five years. DAS is more expensive to construct.

Requests for proposals (RFP) have brought no takers to construct a DAS system. In response to a request for proposals issued last summer, Grain Communications Inc. proposed building a tower. That offer lapsed when town leaders took no action in the face of continued debate among Chappy residents.

Despite a lack of consensus among survey respondents about the best way to provide service, a majority of the 226 respondents, 76 percent, said they are unsatisfied with the service now available.

The survey was mailed in September to property owners based on records in the office of the town assessor, wireless committee chairman Woody Filley told The Times in August. It was also made available online. In total, a total of 538 surveys were mailed out.

The survey posed 12 questions. Most focused on preferences between a cell tower and a distributed antenna system (DAS). The survey asked respondents how strong their desire is for cell service at all; what they use cell service for; and what they would like a cell tower to look like if one were to be built.

The committee was expected to present the survey’s findings to selectmen in October. That presentation has yet to take place.

“At some point in the future, we will,” wireless committee chairman Woody Filley said in an email to The TImes. “Right now we are still awaiting word from the providers on the specifics of some options they are working on.”

An island divided

Question No. 8 said the following: “A DAS system would put an antenna on top of 40-foot telephone poles along the road and in other strategic areas. Approximately 30 poles are currently being discussed during this portion of the design phase. A tower solution would likely be a single installation ranging in height from 100 feet to 180 feet.” Respondents were prompted to select all the answers that applied. Forty-four percent of respondents said that they would only support a DAS system on Chappaquiddick. Seventeen percent said they would only support a tower.

The remainder based their answers on conditional options. For example, 33 percent said they would support a DAS system as long as it covers a similar area to a tower; 20 percent said they would only support a tower if it were disguised to look like a tree or a flagpole; 11 percent would only support a DAS system if it could be built within a year or two of when a tower could be built; 12 percent would support a smaller tower; 6 percent said they don’t want anything built.

“A tower is the best and least expensive option which can be put in place quickly,” one respondent said in an anonymous comment posted on the survey website. “We would not oppose a DAS system if it is equally effective, includes all service providers, and can be installed quickly.”

Other respondents said that they didn’t care what solution was chosen as long as the spotty cell service is remedied.

“I would support anything that gets us cell phone coverage,” one person said.

Respondents were asked about the preferred method of disguising a cell tower. Of the 211 people who answered the question, 43 percent said that they would not consider a cell tower on Chappy, regardless of how it looked. Sixteen percent said they would prefer that a cell tower look like a flagpole, and 23 percent said they would prefer a cell tower look like a tree. Of those who answered, 18 percent chose “other” and left comments.

“A tower should look like a tower,” one person said.

Several commenters suggested that the tower should look like a boat’s mast. Others said that the tower should not be disguised, and one person raised concern about the prospect of a pole disguised as a flagpole.

“Who would raise and lower a flag?” the writer asked.

Regardless of the infrastructure, 73 percent of respondents agreed the system must provide service for AT&T and Verizon users. The rest of the respondents said they wouldn’t mind a single-carrier system.

Typically, the company that erects the system, be it DAS or a tower, is not a provider. Once the system is complete, space is leased to a provider, such as AT&T or Verizon.

Respondents were asked what their main concern was with respect to cell phone access. Of those, 33 percent said for emergency communication; 24 percent said for personal use; 14 percent said for work purposes, and the remaining 29 percent chose other and were encouraged to specify.

Most of those who left comments said that they wanted cell service for all the listed options.

“It really is a combination, and it would be difficult to provide a definite ‘main concern,’” one person wrote.

‘Get it done’

The last section of the survey solicited any additional comments. A total of 107 people had something to say.

“Edgartown has a legal obligation to provide infrastructure for public safety, in my opinion. Chappy residents may not have an obligation to use it. I would not want to be the town official that calls the family of anyone who has needlessly died because of the inability of responders to get a 911 call due to ‘no cell coverage.’ In 15 years we have had two medical emergencies that required we drive three quarters of a mile to get cell coverage for 911 calls,” one resident said.

Another respondent expressed concern that building a tower on Chappy would make it a “dumping ground” for infrastructure to service Katama and other parts of Edgartown.

Another lamented what he or she referred to as “disinformation being provided” to residents, and said “it is difficult to make sense of it all.”

One person just wanted it done: “I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care what it looks like. Just get it done.”