Edgartown officials embrace temporary wireless antenna on Chappy

The Edgartown planning board encouraged AT&T to move forward with the permit application process.

A proposal by AT&T to improve wireless service on Chappaquiddick by erecting a temporary wireless antenna on the property of Chappy resident Robert Fynbo, the owner of Chappaquiddick Wireless Internet Service Provider (Chappy WISP), a company he formed to provide broadband Internet wireless service, has the support of Edgartown selectmen, planning board members, public safety officials, and members of the Chappaquiddick wireless committee.

Officials said that the service could be up and running as soon as Memorial Day.

On Monday, members of the wireless committee went before selectmen with the outlines of the plan. Committee chairman Woody Filley, a Chappy resident, told selectmen that the solution, which would be temporary, assuaged concerns on both sides.

“The committee does support this process. We are unanimous,” Mr. Filley told selectmen. He 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, which met Tuesday night with representatives of AT&T.

Two choices

On Tuesday night, AT&T representative Brian Grossman told planning board members the temporary antenna would precede a permanent solution to the island’s spotty to nonexistent cell reception, but he said the company’s current focus is on the immediate and temporary solution.

Mr. Grossman presented two options for a temporary antenna, which are being tested in the coming months to gauge which is the better choice.

The first choice would be to add a 10-foot extension to Mr. Fynbo’s existing tower, which would be used to attach three AT&T antennas. It must still be determined if the tower could support the addition.

A second option would be to install a temporary 100-foot tower on a ballast base created for that purpose.

“The permanent one will be handled separately,” Mr. Grossman told planning board members.

Mr. Grossman said that the timeline is “very, very tight,” and that if a temporary solution was not functioning by Memorial Day, AT&T would try to have one up and running as close to that time as possible.

Planning board chairman Michael McCourt told Mr. Grossman that visibility was one of the most important concerns that Chappaquiddick residents have about a potential tower.

“We wouldn’t expect a significant increase to visibility,” Mr. Grossman said.

Mr. Fynbo remained largely quiet. He spoke up only when the planning board asked him if his Wi-Fi tower could support additional equipment from AT&T. “That’s up to the engineers,” Mr. Fynbo said.

Planning board members also asked for input from the town information technology (IT) manager, Adam Darack.

“We [the wireless committee] can’t make a statement about the end result because, as you can see tonight, everything is kind of in flux,” Mr. Darack said. He did say that AT&T representatives have been following the coverage of the Chappy cell service debate and are “aware of the climate there.”

Mr. Darack emphasized that if the temporary antennas are installed in time for summer, emergency responders would have a much easier time communicating during a potential emergency on Chappaquiddick.

Mr. Grossman told planning board members that, although people who do not have AT&T will not experience better service on Chappy, 911 calls from most providers will be able to use the antennas.

Lease agreements to come

During a lull in the discussion, planning board member Alan Wilson quipped that Mr. Fynbo “will get the rent” and the town will not.

“We’ll deal with that later,” planning board member Robert Cavallo said.

As he was leaving the meeting, Mr. Fynbo told The Times that details regarding lease agreements between himself and AT&T have yet to be decided upon. He does not know how much AT&T would pay him to lease his land, nor when such contracts would be ready.

“It’s not going to put me into retirement,” Mr. Fynbo said. “It’s not nearly as lucrative as people may think.”

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

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. AT&T’s proposal seems to have bridged the gap.

DAS is more expensive to construct. 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.

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.

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.