The construction of a proposed distributed antennae system (DAS) could provide a regulatory bulwark against companies intent on building conventional wireless towers in West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah, DAS proponents said at a recent meeting. By one industry estimate, without DAS, existing deficiencies in wireless coverage could invite as many as 11 tall towers for wireless carriers.

Alex Gamota, director of DAS strategic relations and network policy for proposed DAS vendor American Tower Corp. (ATC), provided the estimate at a public meeting on June 22 at the Chilmark Community Center, the latest in a series of public meetings on the proposal to improve wireless communications in the three up-Island towns.

In response to a question from Tucker Hubbell of West Tisbury, Mr. Gamota said that while his estimates were not scientific, he thought that Aquinnah might require two or three towers, Chilmark an additional four or five towers and West Tisbury two or three new towers.

Several speakers, including West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel, reviewed the alternatives to DAS and the legal landscape. The US Telecommunications Act (TCA) of 1996 makes clear that the universal availability of wireless cell phone service is, in the federal government’s view, in the public interest and critical to public safety. Further, the legislation puts restrictions on what towns such as the three up-Island towns now considering the DAS system may write into their zoning bylaws in order to prohibit the construction of wireless systems.

Both the 1996 federal law and a recent legal opinion the law firm of Reynolds, Rappaport & Kaplan, provided at the request of the towns, indicate that a successful legal challenge to a cell tower proposal would be highly unlikely without a viable alternative for a carrier to use, such as a DAS system, Mr. Knabel said.

“The law places limits on local control. I’m not saying it’s a good law, but it is the law. That’s reality and we have to live with it,” Mr. Knabel said. He added that when communities provide a viable alternative to carriers, local control is restored to local zoning and permitting bodies with regard to placement of equipment and aesthetic considerations.

Aquinnah selectman Camille Rose agreed. “We can disallow cell towers if we have a system that provides what carriers want,” she said.

Newly appointed Chilmark police chief Brian Cioffi supported the idea of private agreements that would extend DAS coverage to more remote areas, such as the Quansoo area at the west side of Tisbury Great Pond.

“We have boosters on our equipment that allow us to communicate in those areas, but once we lift the handset, it can be lost,” Mr. Cioffi said, encouraging both ATC and residents to pursue agreements to expand DAS nodes to private properties, particularly on the south shore of Tisbury Great Pond, where coverage is compromised, even under the proposed DAS network.

Mr. Gamota said that ATC is open to private agreements and promised to pursue them in the future.

The often confrontational tone of two earlier meetings was missing at Monday’s meeting in the Chilmark Community Center. Many of the questions from the 40 people attending focused on the construction and operation of a distributed antennae system.

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 tall conventional towers are unwelcome and wireless telephone service is poor.

Opponents of the DAS system also had their say. Ronald Kluver decried the addition of more physical infrastructure to up-Island aesthetics. “We have beautiful, scenic roads. Less is more,” he said of a plan to add new poles to support the DAS network.

Prudy Burt, a West Tisbury resident and member of the conservation commission, said she continued to believe that West Tisbury should withdraw from the DAS process. “We have adequate coverage in West Tisbury, and who knows what the technology will be in a year or two,” she said.

Caitlin Jones, a Chilmark resident, who in past had cited health and safety hazards, asked, “Would I be able to tap into the fiber optic system at a pole and could anyone else in the town?” Mr. Gamota said yes.

Several up-Island residents expressed frustration at the open-ended nature of the proposal. They questioned the lack of information about carriers’ commitment to use parts or all of the system as well as specific financial benefits accruing to the towns.

“We may be ahead of ourselves,” said Richard Osnoss of the Chilmark planning board. “Westchester County, N.Y. completed a DAS system in a year. They had the utility and a carrier presenting the plan as partners.”

“It seems to me we’re losing our leverage (with carriers) without specific use plans from carriers,” Nan Doty said.

After questioning Mr. Gamota closely on details of the revenue sharing plan between towns and ATC, Mitchell Posin, a member of the Chilmark planning board, said he was not satisfied about some details of the plan.

Mr. Gamota was unable to estimate revenues because ATC does not have a carrier committed to its proposed system.

Under terms of an agreement reached between the three towns and ATC, the towns would divide up to $600,000 in one-time carrier fees and ongoing rental income for each node used by carriers within the town boundaries. Aquinnah is slated to have seven nodes, Chilmark 20 and West Tisbury 19, under the current DAS layout.

Mr. Gamota said that ATC usually has a carrier partner when proposing a system, such as on Nantucket, where a DAS system is in place. Mr. Gamota carefully explained he was not speaking for carriers, but he noted several times that carriers often prefer cell towers because they are four or five times less expensive than DAS systems.

“We’ve received calls from three private parties offering to lease us land for cell towers” on private Island properties, he said.

Several residents asked about the financial feasibility of installing the DAS fiber optic cable system underground. Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll said he has heard of cost estimates ranging up to $1 million per mile. Andrew Nanaa, whose company, Global Protection Communications Systems (GPCS), is laying fiber optic cable in Vineyard Haven, said the real number is $180,000 a mile. “I’ve heard the million dollar number for years but I’ve never seen it. It doesn’t exist,” he said.

Robert Potts of West Tisbury suggested that Mr. Gamota and Mr. Nanaa pursue the idea of extending fiber optic cable up-Island.

“We have had conversations and we’re willing to talk again,” Mr. Gamota said, noting “We may or may not do business [together].”

ATC is scheduled to provide a final detailed plan in late August, so that abutters to locations for proposed poles may be notified and the general public made aware of the final plan.

with permission, MV Times

By Jack Shea

Published: July 2, 2009