MV Gazette, on March 13th, 2010

Cuttyhunk Combats Comcast on Wireless

Okay, so maybe what the residents of Cuttyhunk were doing in order to get their high-speed Internet service was not strictly legal, but goodness, it was clever. It showed, they will tell you, the sort of inventiveness that made America great.

But Comcast doesn’t see it that way. To the giant telecommunications company, what the Cuttyhunkers did was theft, pure and simple. And so they have pulled the plug on the islanders, casting them back into the dark ages, online-communications-wise.

For the chronology of this remarkable story of confrontation between a tiny community’s entrepreneurial flair and a large corporation’s intractability, we turn to Grant Schenck, himself an IT software guy, and a lifelong seasonal resident of Cuttyhunk.

“Up until about five years ago,” Mr. Schenck said, “there was no internet on the island. Then there was no way to get online except through satellite systems that were pricey and problematic.”

So, Mr. Schenck said, one Cuttyhunk seasonal resident, who was in the business of wireless networking, got the idea of piggybacking on the Comcast internet service to the Vineyard.

“Three or four years ago he purchased a Comcast business connection. Last summer he purchased a second one,” he said.

The Cuttyhunkers’ link man was Hugh Taylor of the Outermost Inn, at Aquinnah. The Comcast lines were installed at his place and connected to radio links which beamed the signal from Mr. Taylor’s place to several houses on Cuttyhunk, which had line of sight, some 10 miles across the water.

From there the signal went through a Wifi system, available to anyone on Cuttyhunk who wanted it.

“So,” said Mr. Schenck, “the signal went from their computer out through the wireless antenna to the nearby node, which then shot it to the top of the island to someone’s house, which then shot it over the radio link to Martha’s Vineyard, where it connected to the Comcast cable internet connection.

“There was a number of technical issues initially, but over the years they got ironed out and by last summer it was a very good network, very high speed. We got download speeds last summer of six or seven megabits per second. Here in Connecticut I get 12 to 15.”

So part-time residents like Mr. Schenck could stay wired. More importantly, the few dozen year-round residents came to rely on it for necessities. The could order their groceries over the net. Island businesses, like charter operators, could deal with customers. The Island’s doctor, Seymour DiMare, could use it to organize the summer clinics he arranges with visiting medicos, with all the credentialling and malpractice arrangements that entails.

Indeed, one of those radio nodes was set up in Dr. DiMare’s home. As far as he is concerned, Cuttyhunk’s little open network represents the kind of innovative thinking and entrepreneurialism that America should encourage.

“We did what they should have been doing. We found a way to provide service in difficult circumstances. They should have welcomed it, used us as a case study. We could have been an experiment for them.

“But in typical corporate fashion, they just cut it off,” Dr. DiMare said.

It seems for a couple of years Comcast remained unaware of what was going on. And those using the network, for their part, did not think they they were doing anything wrong. They were, after all, paying Comcast for the services it provided.

And it was not as if anyone had set out to make a buck from it, Mr. Schenck said.

The man who set it all up did charge people, but only enough to offset the cost of the internet service, plus the hardware.

“He never made any money off this,” said Mr. Schenck.

But then local politics brought the whole thing crashing down. Another local, apparently frustrated in his efforts to start up his own competing system, blew the whistle on them.

Initially this would-be competitor did not go directly to Comcast. Mr. Schenck’s theory is that the man’s plan would have been no more kosher than the existing network. So he first tried to scare off the existing operators.

“There was this funny incident,” Mr. Schenck said, “where the guy who eventually blew the whistle on us, rang Hugh Taylor’s place and pretended to be Comcast. There’s actually a recording of it because he left it for some reason, on Hugh’s voicemail.”

But then the man did go to Comcast, who pulled the plug on the whole thing. That was last September. Since then, Cuttyhunkers have been trying, to no avail, to persuade Comcast to work with them to re-establish their internet services.

Since then, the only option for Cuttyhunkers has been to use cellular internet providers like Verizon and AT& T. But those alternatives are very expensive and suffer from very low speed, due to the island’s distance from cell towers.

“This is the smallest community in Massachusetts and one of the poorest, and this is a critical need on the island,” said Mr. Schenck.

“Comcast’s failure to show any flexibility or willingness to help has marginalized the people who live there year-round and scuttled the ability of all the people who go there to support a home business or telecommute.”

He acknowledged that it was not commercially viable for the big telco to provide full internet service to such a small, remote community. But that being the case, he wondered why they deemed it necessary to quash the islanders’ innovative effort to help themselves.

“I still scratch my head as to why Comcast really cares,” said Mr. Schenck.

To be fair, Comcast does have its reasons. To allow the arrangement to continue would breach certain of its legal terms of service.

A spokesman for Comcast outlined these to the Gazette on Wednesday, in strong and aggressive terms, but refused to allow his comments to be used on the record. Yesterday spokesman Marc Goodman sent this formal statement: “Comcast actively defends our network and our customers from service theft which can negatively impact area consumers and businesses who are paying Comcast to receive TV, phone and high speed services.”

Mr. Goodman suggested consumers look to other service providers on Cuttyhunk.

Dukes County manager Russell Smith, who has been trying to help resolve the issue, said he saw a letter written by Comcast to local state representative Tim Madden, who also has been trying to broker some solution.

“I accept Comcast has legitimate concerns about people potentially putting inappropriate stuff on the net, has security and liability and contractual concerns,” said Mr. Smith.

“We at the county don’t condone the system that was set up. We’re not trying to defend something that was wrong; we’re looking for a solution, which respects those legal constraints.

“The people on Cuttyhunk are willing to pay for service.”

But Comcast has offered no solutions. Not to Mr. Smith, Rep. Madden, or Dr. DiMare, who attended a meeting with company representatives on Tuesday this week.

“All they have offered so far has been a very legal and bureaucratic explanation of why they cut it off,” said Mr. Smith.

“But we don’t need to be educated on their legal constraints. We need a solution. And so far, I just don’t know what the solution might be. I really don’t.”

By MIKE SECCOMBE

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