Aquinnah, Chilmark communications gutted in nor’easter

When fiberoptics and DAS nodes went down, cold war–era copper line held true.

1
A node along State Road by the Aquinnah fire station. — Rich Saltzberg

With temperatures plummeting inside her Aquinnah home, 75-year-old Priscilla Belain lit her wood stove to keep warm.

“Freezing inside,” she told The Times, recalling that night, March 13, with a blizzard howling outside. “Billows and billows and billows started coming out.”

Her house filling with smoke, she went outside, looked up at her chimney, and saw it was plugged with snow. Electricity was out, and with it her Comcast landline. With her only means of communication useless, she went for help by foot.

“It wasn’t easy at all. The wind was fierce,” she said. “I was out of breath when I got there.”

At 9:50 pm, Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain saw her near town hall as he was pulling his cruiser onto State Road. The woman waved her arms for help. Chief Belain pulled up and recognized her as a distant cousin. “Can you call the fire department for me?” she asked after explaining the situation.

Chief Belain drove her home, but asked her to remain in the cruiser as he went to investigate, she said. Seeing the smoky conditions in the house, the chief radioed dispatch for help. The fire department arrived and extinguished the wood stove fire, she said. Chief Belain deemed the house too hazardous for her to stay in, and drove her to her sister-in-law’s, Natalie Francis, who also had no heat, she said.

“At least it wasn’t smoky,” she said.

Had her house actually caught fire, and had the homeowner not lived so close to the town offices (including the police and fire department), the home “could have sustained damage due to the time lost trying to get help,” Chief Belain wrote in an email to The Times.

“I hate to think what would have happened,” she said.

Priscilla Belain’s ordeal underscores the fragility of up-Island communication networks, which to different degrees are all dependent on electricity. When foul weather severs that power, as it did in March, the residents of Aquinnah, who number scarcely more than 300, can find even emergency calls becoming a challenge.

A day after the Belain wood stove incident, a 911 medical call for an Aquinnah resident who’d vomited and passed out routed to the New Bedford Police Department, but “they couldn’t transfer” it back the Island, according to a partially redacted police report. New Bedford Police called the Dukes County communication center, which subsequently called Aquinnah Police Sgt. Paul Manning to convey the emergency, according to Chief Belain.

“She was lucky to get a signal,” Sgt. Manning said, referring to the woman, who used a mobile phone to call for help. “If conditions are right, you can pick up a signal from New Bedford,” he said. The patient was successfully transferred to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital via Moshup Trail, according to the report. Both Chief Belain and Sgt. Manning described cellular service as spotty, weak, or nonexistent in Aquinnah during the storm, and Comcast fiberoptic phones as dead. However, the landlines in the police station worked, they said.

Both Aquinnah and Chilmark lost power entirely during the nor’easter of March 13 for approximately 24 to 36 hours. The two towns also suffered a wholesale loss of communication. This wasn’t so much because trees crashed through phone lines, which they did, but because electricity no longer energized fiberoptics and cellular nodes.

Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon, via their own infrastructure and leased infrastructure from American Tower Corp., are the communication providers up-Island.

For wireless communication, Chilmark and Aquinnah do not have traditional cell towers to relay phone signals. Instead they rely on a network of mini antennas mounted on telephone poles known as a distributed antenna system, or DAS. Individual antennas are called nodes. They look like fire extinguisher cylinders perched atop poles, with wire-linked boxes and electric meters mounted below them. The nodes are reliant on electricity to function. When power cuts out, the nodes have batteries that last up to eight hours, according to Andy Farrissey, president of Farrissey Tele-Comm, the firm that services the up-Island nodes. Should the batteries drain, the nodes can no longer “talk” to the area hub in Chilmark, and wireless communication can go down, he said. That is what happened during the storm.

Unlike traditional cell towers, which have automatic generators onsite, nodes are capable of receiving power from mobile generators, but aren’t generally connected to them. Farrissey pointed out that nodes at Beetlebung Corner near town hall and the police and fire stations in Chilmark and on State Road in Aquinnah, also near town hall and the fire and police stations, have generator connections low enough to be reached on foot, whereas the majority require a bucket truck to reach. Still, it’s dicey work in bad weather. Utilities and their subcontractors generally don’t deploy in perilous conditions, but wait until it’s not dangerous for workers to work, as AT&T did.

“Once conditions were safe, our technicians deployed additional generators and worked around the clock to restore service and repair affected equipment,” Kate MacKinnon, a communications director at AT&T, wrote in an email after the storm.

No Verizon-owned sites on the Vineyard went out of service during the storm, according to Verizon spokesperson Laura Merrit.

At a March 20 selectmen’s meeting, Tim Carroll, Chilmark’s deputy fire chief and emergency manager, didn’t paint an “ideal” picture of midstorm recharging — something towns can do, too.

“The DAS can can be powered by a generator locally, but that means somebody goes there, turns on switches on the pole, plugs it in, has a gas generator sitting there — which is not ideal during a storm,” he said. “Certainly during recovery and mopup it’s possible, but we only have three of those generators and three of those cords. I think there’s 52 nodes in the system.”

The standing plan is to recharge nodes situated in Menemsha, Beetlebung Corner, and North Road by the auxiliary fire station, because public safety is concentrated in those areas, Carroll said.

He also pointed out that with power loss of eight hours or more, such as they suffered in the storm, Comcast telephone, cable, and internet go down. Should the area hub, the “connection back to the rest of the world,” go down, communication isolation would become more extreme, Carroll said.

The hub is a relay point where all the AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon signals from the nodes collect and are then separately retransmitted via fiberoptics, Carroll said.
In an email to the Times, American Tower Corp. vice president of communications and employee development Matt Peterson wrote, “The hub is the central location where tenant equipment hands off their RF [radio frequency] signal to the DAS. Our system then converts the RF signal to light and transmits this to the individual node equipment, where it’s converted back to RF. The signal is then amplified and transmitted out [through] the antenna(s).”

The hub remained functional during the storm due to a generator, Carroll said.

“The generator … can go for days. It did run for days, but it was low on propane, so they had to come in during the snowstorm to fill it up,” Carroll said.

Copper dates back to cold war
Sgt. Manning told The Times he’s generally available via his Comcast phone when on call, but Comcast went down during the storm, and he was left with “spotty” cell coverage and radio.

“It’s fortunate that we didn’t lose radio communication with the [communications] center,” he said, adding there’s always a possibility of losing the up-Island repeater on Peaked Hill.

Mobile phone capability was nonexistent to “very minimal,” Chief Belain said. What service there was likely worked off a tower in New Bedford, Farrissey said.

However, the police departments in each town retained non-fiberoptic landline communication. Chilmark Police Chief Jonathan Klaren said while the station’s Centrex telephone system went down, a few old-style landline connections remained viable. The reason for this, Farrissey explained, was cold war infrastructure.

From Peaked Hill, former site of a gap radar installation, to the brick telephone building at Beetlebung Corner, and up Middle Road through West Tisbury along State Road to Vineyard Haven to the brick telephone building on Edgartown–Vineyard Haven Road runs subterranean copper line called a “toll line,” Farrissey said. While standard copper telephone line is about the diameter of a garden hose, the Chilmark–Vineyard Haven toll line is the diameter of a human leg, he said.

At one time, the toll line provided direct communication from Peaked Hill to MIT researchers working on the elaborate SAGE (semi-automatic ground environment) radar defense system.

“The scope of the SAGE Air Defense System as it evolved from its inception in 1951 to its full deployment in 1963,” states MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory web site [ll.mit.edu/], “was enormous. The cost of the project, both in funding and the number of military, civilian, and contractor personnel involved, exceeded that of the Manhattan Project.”

As The Times previously reported, a SAGE gap radar installation was situated in Chilmark because Peaked Hill created a blind spot or gap in the coverage from other radar sites.

Despite the devastation to poles and pole-draped wire in Chilmark, especially on North Road, the huge cold war toll line was unaffected, Farrissey said — so too were many telephone lines connected to it.

This was true for the Chilmark police station, which retained copperline Verizon phone service even after losing its main system.

“Our phone lines into the station stayed up, and we never lost ability to make calls out or take calls in,” Klaren wrote in an email. “We discovered when our Centrex phone system’s ‘brain’ loses power, we cannot use the phone sets on the Centrex system, and also lost capability for people to leave us phone messages. As a result, we have plugged the Centrex system into an outlet that is generator-powered, and are confident these two issues are corrected.”

The Aquinnah Police Department’s copper lines also remained viable. Even though there’s no toll line to Aquinnah, Farissey said aerial copper telephone line, even if it’s blown to the ground, will keep relaying signal so long as it isn’t severed. This is partly due to the sturdy construction of the line, Farrissey said, and partly due to the low voltage power generated by telephone buildings like the one near Beetlebung Corner. Built like bomb shelters for survivability against the past potential of the cold war turning hot, the buildings house generators that keep current running through the lines even when regular power is kaput.

Carroll framed the copper lines as critical at a March 20 selectmen’s meeting, and warned town residents who believe they may be at risk of losing them or other communication, or those who may be medically fragile, to preposition themselves ahead of storms at shelters, friends’ homes, or even the Mansion House or Harbor View hotels. “Because after a storm, we won’t necessarily know they have a problem. And we won’t be able to get down some of the side roads to get to people,” he said.

For residents who still have traditional landlines, Carroll said discarding them is risky. “I just want people not to cancel those phones if they can help it,” he said.

“My Verizon landline worked the whole time,” selectman Warren Doty said. “If people are worried, they could keep their Verizon landline. It worked during the whole power outage.”

Selectmen Malkin and Rossi, whose phones were cellular and Comcast-based, had zero communication power, they said.

“I miss Verizon,” Rossi said.

Carroll cautioned that not all landlines are copper. He said about half the lines in new Chilmark homes aren’t. Carroll later told The Times he has a copper connection that functioned throughout the storm outage.

Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman told The Times the company prepositioned crews stocked with fiberoptic cable and generators on-Island ahead of the storm, and as soon as possible they deployed and began repair work and connecting nodes to generators. Farrissey said Comcast nodes are different in that they don’t employ antennas. They also activated mobile hotspots around New England, a rep said. Comcast’s media department told The Times one way Comcast/Xfinity voice customers can hedge against phone loss is by ordering special Comcast voice modems with built-in eight-hour lithium batteries. These require a corded phone and only sustain phone service, not internet, they said. Comcast said it restored all customer service on-Island by the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, and monitored restoration progress from its network operations center in Chelmsford.

Unlike Verizon transmissions, which leave the Island from a microwave tower in Vineyard Haven along with some AT&T transmissions, according to Farrissey, Goodman said their network leaves the Island in conduit parallel to one of Eversource’s sea cables.

“Communication was really a problem during that storm,” Aquinnah town administrator Jeffrey Madison said. A Verizon Jetpack mobile hotspot kept him in contact with the governor’s office and MassDOT, he said. It was the first time he used it. For emergency management purposes, he said the town is weighing the purchase of satellite phones. Town emergency manager Gary Robinson later said, “Ideally for the town we get one or two of those phones.”

Robinson estimated the phones cost $1,500 apiece. He’s hoping for an Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) this summer from FEMA to cover the cost, he said. The time to get the ball rolling on phones and other emergency management matters is before another emergency situation arrives, Robinson said, noting hurricane season is not far off.

“Complacency is a very communicable disease,” he said.

Chilmark has looked into a satellite phone, but given their expense, and the understanding that the county has at least one, it hasn’t committed, Carroll said.