Chilmark and Aquinnah officials have signed a contract with American Tower Corporation (ATC) to build a distributed antennae system (DAS), designed to improve wireless service in the up-Island towns without a conventional tower. Plans for a three-town system have been suspended.

Although West Tisbury was part of the original discussion, town officials and residents continue to disagree about permitting requirements and the extent of the wireless communication benefits the system would provide in a town with existing towers.

ATC had planned to have the system in place this summer. But ATC officials told The Times this week that delays in the approval process make that impossible.

DAS relies on a series of antennas set on telephone poles to distribute cellular telephone signals. DAS appeals to communities where a high conventional tower is unwelcome but where wireless telephone service is poor.

ATC is in the DAS and tower building and leasing business. Once a system is erected, ATC leases space to wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T.

The completed DAS is expected to be able to accommodate up to four carriers. No carriers have been signed yet, ATC project manager Alex Gamota told The Times.

“We are continuing to market the network very actively and having those towns’ approval of the contract will make it more attractive for potential customers,” Mr. Gamota said.

The contract calls for a central hub, or switching station, to be built on the Chilmark landfill property. ATC will pay the town $14,000 in rent annually once a carrier is signed.

In addition, ATC will make payments to the towns of $600 per pole per carrier, dependent on the number of carriers and the minimum number of nodes, or antenna transmitters, used throughout the system.

When a third carrier is signed on, the towns will divide an additional annual payment of up to $33,000, based on a $600 per node tenancy payment, Mr. Gamota said. The completely constructed DAS may include 55 nodes.

The contract also requires ATC to provide the towns of Chilmark and Aquinnah with a completed fiber optic public safety communications system. The original contract called for the towns to pay to link public buildings to the poles. During negotiations, ATC agreed to pick up that cost, estimated to be approximately $200,000. Camille Rose, Aquinnah selectman and DAS committee member, said the creation of the public safety system would be “pretty impressive.”

The initial proposal called for payments of $150,000 per carrier. Because the process of approval of the DAS initiative took longer than expected and the economy went into a deep recession, the promise of cash payments was withdrawn in negotiations.

Ms. Rose said she is disappointed that the carrier payments first described are no longer on the table but never expected money in the first place. “I didn’t expect the project was going to bring in any money in the beginning,” she said. “When we opened the bid from ATC, we were surprised that there was going to be any money at all.”

Chilmark selectman J. B. Riggs Parker said the critical element is improved wireless service. “I just want to see it completed so there is cell service, ” he said. “These extras were extras, and I am just looking forward to getting improved service.”

Although the contract that Aquinnah and Chilmark selectmen signed makes provisions for the addition of West Tisbury, West Tisbury has no agreement with ATC.

The West Tisbury zoning board of appeals (ZBA) has taken the position that ATC requires special permits. Under the current plan that would mean ATC would need to apply for 24 special use permits to construct the DAS in that town, using utility poles along the town public right of ways.

ATC believes it is a utility and needs only to secure the approval of the selectmen.

“We are in a stand-off, and I do not know how that is going to play out,” selectman Richard Knabel, a West Tisbury selectman and DAS committee member, said. “The ball is in their [ATC’s] court and the court is silent although they have impressed on me the need to move quickly.”

by Susan Silk