with permission, MV Times

American Tower Corp. (ATC) brought a changed plan to improve up-Island cell phone service to a public hearing last week, but the new plan attracted the same negative response from some West Tisbury residents as the first plan did last month. The system’s goal is to improve cellular and emergency communications service.

Up-Island residents on April 6 dismissed ATC’s initial plan to build a distributed antennae system (DAS). Unlike that five-hour marathon meeting, there was more debate May 27 among audience members on the merits of the proposed DAS system.

DAS opponents, in a standing room only crowd of about 70 residents at the West Tisbury Public Safety Building, questioned the locations of proposed telephone poles to house the antennae, plus health and safety concerns, aesthetics, and whether West Tisbury is in need of improved cell phone service at all. Two residents called for the town to withdraw from the DAS effort.

In a straw vote on the quality of cell phone service, about two dozen residents indicated service quality was good or acceptable. Four regarded service as poor, and four or five said they did not own cell phones.

Several times during the raucous two-and-a-half-hour session, beleaguered ATC official Alex Gamota, director for American Tower of DAS strategic relations and network policy, reminded DAS opponents that his company did not propose the distributed antennae system to West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. “We are responding to your request for a proposal,” he said.

Richard Knabel, West Tisbury selectman and a member of the up-Island DAS committee, began the meeting with a short review of individual efforts over the last eight years by the three towns to improve cell phone service. The towns signed a memorandum of understanding last May to pursue a DAS system jointly. ATC was one of two companies to respond to a request for proposal.

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 high conventional tower is unwelcome but wireless telephone service is poor.

ATC’s first effort called for 25 nodes housed on large synthetic poles. The revised plan calls for 47 nodes mounted on smaller conventional poles equipped with battery backup in the case of system failure. West Tisbury would receive 18 of the 47 nodes. The plan calls for use of existing pole sites for 10 or 11 of the 18 poles.

Mr. Gamota also displayed a color-coded coverage map showing improved coverage, particularly for south shore areas. The lack of coverage at Tisbury Great Pond drew extensive criticism at the earlier meeting.

The majority of attendees seemed unswayed by Mr. Gamota’s recitation of what he characterized as unique benefits to the town, including a one-time fee of $150,000 from each of the first three carriers, revenue-sharing from leases and 12 strands of fiber optic cable to be used by the towns for their own data and voice communications systems.

Only a minority of the 20 or so residents who took the microphone during a question and answer session expressed unqualified support for DAS services in West Tisbury.

“I don’t know anything about cell phones, but I have a cell phone,” William Haynes said. “My family and my firm have cell phones. We’re fine in West Tisbury but we need them in Chilmark and Aquinnah.”

Wendy Wolf, a resident of Chilmark who lives near Tisbury Great Pond, also supported better cell service. “We don’t have cell service. What would happen if your child went over his handlebars and you needed to communicate quickly?” she asked

Several speakers expressed concerns related to radio waves. “They are called cell phones because they work on the same principle as the cells in your body,” Lisa Vunk said, asking for details on safety testing.

Her comments brought a rejoinder from resident Les Cutler, who holds two doctorates in anatomical sciences.

“There is support to build (the system) and not to build the system. We may not like it, don’t want it or the way it looks, but there is not a shred of credible published evidence to support this (concern) and we should not be misled by these health concerns,” he said to a smattering of applause.

Plans call for ATC to complete site testing at each of the nodes and return on June 22 for a third public information forum, which will be held at 6 pm at the Chilmark Community Center.