MV Gazette, on October 23rd, 2009

New Cell Phone Plan Up-Island After T-Mobile Shows Interest

American Tower Corporation, the company that wants to build a distributed antenna system (DAS) to improve cell phone coverage in the three up-Island towns, formally submitted revised plans to Chilmark last week that include a letter from the wireless carrier T-Mobile expressing interest in leasing space on the new system.

The application was submitted last Thursday to Chilmark’s wireless communications equipment and facilities plan review committee, fulfilling American Tower’s requirement to submit plans to the town 30 days before a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 30. The company previously submitted plans in Aquinnah, but has not yet filed plans in West Tisbury.

The DAS system relies on a series of radio access nodes connected to small antennas on poles that distribute cell phone signals.

The plan submitted last week calls for 46 nodes to be built in the three up-Island towns: 20 in Chilmark, 20 in West Tisbury and six in Aquinnah. The system would use a combination of existing stub poles and new poles, and would string fiber optic cable along approximately 1,200 existing utility poles owned by NSTAR.

The revised plan is essentially the same one that was submitted to Chilmark and Aquinnah earlier this year. The locations of some of the nodes have been changed in the new plan and a handful of nodes have been eliminated.

The application comes with a letter from T-Mobile offering a “non-binding expression of interest” in leasing some nodes in the DAS system.

“We are encouraged by the developments to date and are continuing to study the specifics of the proposed DAS network . . . the letter sets forth only a nonbinding expression of interest with respect to the possible relationships between T-Mobile and American Tower,” the letter says in part.

T-Mobile is the fourth largest wireless telecommunications network in the U.S. market after Verizon, AT& T and Sprint. It also has the fewest Island customers, largely due to poor service, which might provide more incentive for the company to rent some or all of the nodes in the DAS proposal.

The revised plan was reviewed on Wednesday by the up-Island DAS committee, which includes representatives from Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury. The committee was formed in 2006 after the town of Aquinnah prohibited the cell phone provider Cingular (now AT& T) from leasing the steeple of the Aquinnah Community Baptist Church for use as a cell tower.

The phone company then sued the town under the provisions of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which guarantees citizens rights to quality cell service and limits the grounds on which towns and citizens can challenge the construction of cell phone towers.

The DAS committee was created to form a plan to boost cell phone service in all three up-Island towns, although a growing number of West Tisbury residents and some officials have called for the town to drop out of the agreement, partly because the town already has better cell phone service than the two other towns.

Wednesday’s meeting of the DAS committee was attended by West Tisbury and Chilmark representatives; Camille Rose, the representative for Aquinnah, was expected to attend, but did not.

J.B. Riggs Parker, a Chilmark selectman and DAS committee member, said he was encouraged by the new plan from American Tower. “We have a plan now and we might have a carrier . . . it’s starting to come into focus,” he said.

West Tisbury committee member Richard Knabel, also a town selectman, acknowledged the new plan is not that different from the company’s previous proposal, but said the addition of a potential carrier makes the plan more viable.

American Tower has previously indicated it will pay a flat fee of $150,000 to the three towns and also a share of the revenue. But American Tower has yet to finalize a financial agreement with the towns, and the plan was cast into doubt when the company reportedly experienced problems securing a carrier.

Mr. Knabel said he still believes this is the best chance for the town to improve cell phone service and also make some money.

“Remember, there is nothing to prevent a cell carrier from coming in and building a cell tower in the future. This plan provides us with an opportunity to share some of the revenue . . . there are no guarantees any other company will make that same offer,” he said.

Members of the DAS committee on Wednesday agreed to send a letter to American Tower asking them to formally submit a proposal outlining how much the towns stand to gain if they approve the system. The committee also agreed to ask the company to file its plan in West Tisbury as soon as possible.

“We need to see where we are . . . we need to see how much money is still on the table,” Mr. Parker said.

with permission, MV Gazette

by Jim Hickey

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