AT&T plans to install a portable wireless antenna on Chappaquiddick

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

Members of the Chappaquiddick wireless committee told Edgartown selectmen Monday that AT&T will install a portable wireless antenna on the property of Chappy resident Robert “Bob” Fynbo. The cell on wheels, commonly referred to as a COW, appears to have bridged the divide over how to improve wireless service for the remote Chappy community.

Wireless committee chairman Woody Filley, a Chappy resident, told selectmen that the COW solution, which would be temporary, assuaged concerns on both sides. He provided no timeline.

“The committee does support this process. We are unanimous,” Mr. Filley told selectmen.

Chappy residents have wrangled over the issue of how best to improve wireless service for more than five years. Some residents support a tower, while others support a distributed antenna system (DAS), comprised of a series of short antennas most often placed on utility poles.

Mr. Fynbo, the owner of a company that provides wireless Internet service, already has a 94-foot tower on his property.

Mr. Fynbo and representatives from the wireless committee will go before the Edgartown planning board Tuesday evening to begin the preliminary permitting processes. Mr. Filley described the solution as “somewhat of a miracle.”

“This tower’s in a location that will meet the real interests and input we got from people for coverage in that area,” Mr. Filley said.

Selectmen and emergency responders present Monday were pleased with the news.

“I’m ecstatic to know that there will be cell phone coverage,” Fire Chief Peter Shemeth said. Police Chief David Rossi said he agreed wholeheartedly with Chief Shemeth.

Selectmen agreed to send a letter of support for the initiative to the planning board prior to the Tuesday-night meeting. Mr. Fynbo and AT&T representatives will present the preliminary proposals Tuesday night.

Most details have yet to be worked out. Mr. Filley told selectmen that the wireless committee did not wish to micromanage the smaller logistics of the installation.

Specific hardware configuration also still needs to be determined.

“At the moment, we have a cell antenna on my tower which AT&T plans to use for a coverage test on [Feb. 9],” Mr. Fynbo said in an e-mail to The Times. “Beyond that, I am unsure of the exact direction.”

Chappy WISP

Mr. Fynbo is the owner of Chappaquiddick Wireless Internet Service Provider (Chappy WISP), a company he formed to be a “last-mile provider” of broadband Internet wireless service to Chappy and surrounding harbors. Chappy WISP utilizes an 85-foot tower, with a total height of 94 feet. Mr. Fynbo raised the tower over 30 years ago for basic antenna services, primarily ham radio, shortwave, and television. The one-man operation has provided advanced wireless Internet service since 2009.

The town did not have zoning restrictions on antenna structures when he first erected it, and he fell under the guidelines of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). When he began using the tower for Wi-Fi service seven years ago, the town only had zoning regulations covering cell phone transmissions, not Wi-Fi.

In 2011, the town rewrote and included in its regulations cell phone, Wi-Fi, and WiMAX (a technology enabling the delivery of last-mile wireless broadband access as an alternative to cable and DSL). Mr. Fynbo’s tower was grandfathered in the regulations.

Two high-speed microwave links, or backhauls, from Mr. Fynbo’s tower to a tower in Falmouth connect Chappy to two fiber-optic circuits in Falmouth.

A long debate

The long-running argument has been between those who favored a wireless tower and those who wanted a DAS.

The debate has taken place against the background of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA), which bars towns from arbitrarily rejecting an application to site a wireless facility or citing the perceived environmental or health effects of radio-frequency emissions. While the law empowers cities and towns to control where the facilities are sited, town governments are not granted the right to say no to any carrier. At the same time, the burden is on the carrier to demonstrate that there is a need for coverage and to make efforts to share wireless facility sites.

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, and when it was initially pursued, no carriers were interested in getting on board. Requests for proposals (RFP) 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.

A survey issued in September illustrated the deep divide, but also highlighted that across the board, most residents are unhappy with their current reception.

A majority of the 226 respondents, 76 percent, said they are unsatisfied with the service now available.

The survey posed 12 questions. Most focused on preferences between a cell tower and a 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.

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.