A plan to improve wireless communication in the three up-Island towns attracted considerable criticism at a public hearing Monday. The objections may lead to several new hurdles for proponents of a distributed antenna system (DAS). Town officials from Aquinnah, Chilmark, and West Tisbury continued the public hearing until May 4, to allow time to address some of the issues raised.

For those opposed to the project, health and safety concerns and plans to install 25 new utility poles outweighed the benefits of better cell phone service.

There is also evidence of a fracture in the co-operative effort. In comments following the meeting, Richard Knable, West Tisbury selectman, suggested he might support West Tisbury’s withdrawal from the joint undertaking.

The five-hour hearing brought together the Up-Island Distributed Antenna System Committee, the Aquinnah planning board, the West Tisbury selectmen, the Chilmark wireless communications equipment and facilities plan review committee, and the Chilmark site review committee to hear a proposal from Boston-based American Tower Corp (ATC).

The project timeline calls for the public hearing, then the conclusion of a contract between ATC and the Up-Island DAS committee, then completion of a system design.

The vote to continue the hearing came with a caution from the Aquinnah selectmen that Aquinnah – and the Island -‘ face one and possibly two large cell phone towers if the DAS system is not enabled.

DAS relies on a series of radio access nodes connected to small antennas set on telephone poles, or poles erected for the specific purpose, to distribute cellular telephone signals. Although the range is considerably less than in conventional, tall-tower systems, DAS appeals to communities where a tall conventional tower is unwelcome and wireless telephone service is poor.

To date, NSTAR and Verizon have refused to lease their utility poles to American Tower for the installation of a DAS system, opening up the possibility that 25 new poles, of the shorter variety, will need to be erected.

At their Tuesday meeting, Chilmark selectmen voted to initiate a letter writing campaign aimed at convincing NSTAR and Verizon to allow their existing poles to be used for the project.

Reached by phone yesterday before the West Tisbury selectmen were to meet, Mr. Knable said that a letter writing campaign to NSTAR and Verizon is a distinct possibility, but he said he also wants to discuss the overall plan that he said had changed from the original design.

He said he is particularly concerned about the lack of a battery backup to keep the system running in case of an emergency.

“I am concerned about the poles and also about the lack of backup,” Mr. Knable said. “West Tisbury has pretty good cell phone service. Public safety enhancements are a major part of the plan for us. That’s what we need. If it’s not there, what is the real benefit of the project to West Tisbury? I thought we were getting the Nantucket-style system with ten-foot whip antennas mounted on existing telephone poles. These [25 new poles] seem grossly intrusive. I’ve been getting phone calls, some hysterical, since Monday night.”

Public comments Monday were generally in opposition to the addition of poles, and for some, the need for the system at all.

Virginia Jones, a Chilmark landowner and West Tisbury resident, spoke twice against the plan. “I don’t own a cell phone or a TV. Never have and never will,” said Ms. Jones. She questioned whether DAS is really necessary and whether it accomplishes what people were originally told it would accomplish. She suggested that the system be designed to cover Aquinnah and Menemsha, if necessary, and called for denial “of any permits for this project.”

Ms. Jones also had health concerns about radio frequency (RF) waves, particularly since a pole is planned to be sited adjacent to her family farm, a point on which her daughter, Caitlin Jones, who operates the farm, expanded. “It is unfair to characterize RF as unsafe, but it is also clearly not right for ATC to characterize them as safe,” she said about a study commissioned by ATC that held that low-power RF system emissions are nearly 10 times below safety limits set by the Federal Communications Commission. “We simply don’t know.”

The 1996 Telecommunications Act forbids permitting bodies to use health and safety concerns as a reason for not permitting systems that meet the FCC safety standards.

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