with permission from MV Gazette

By SAM BUNGEY

Better cell phone coverage for up-Island towns appears still a way off, judging by the opposition to a proposed system voiced at a long and arduous meeting Monday night.

Aesthetic, financial and health topped the list of concerns over a pitch from American Tower Corporation, a Boston-based company which won a bid late last year to build a distributed antenna system for the three rural towns. Cell phone coverage up-Island ranges from spotty to nonexistent.

The five-hour meeting was attended by three ATC representatives, selectmen and planning board members from Aquinnah, Chilmark and West Tisbury, and some 40 up-Island residents.

Both Chilmark and Aquinnah voted to continue hearings on whether to amend town bylaws to permit the DAS system. Another meeting is scheduled for May 4.

The relatively low power system uses wireless technology to distribute cell phone signals. The ATC presentation centered on a system of 25 pylons, 18 inches in diameter and approximately 40 feet in height.

David Pierce, DAS director for the company, presented maps of the up-Island area with approximate positioning for the pylons and predicted coverage.

According to the map, the system would provide in-house coverage for the majority of up-Island homes.

An alternative, with back-up batteries capable of powering each carrier for 90 minutes in the event of system failure or blackout, was also presented. The batteries would cost an additional $10,000 to $12,000 per pylon, cautioned Mr. Pierce, who said that any added cost added burden to selling process.

If ATC gains town approval for the project, the company will then attempt to sell the service to up to four cell phone carriers.

Mr. Pierce underscored that ATC would not go ahead with construction until there was guarantee of return.

“If we don’t have carriers we won’t build the network; we require at least one carrier to sign up first. We’re a fiscally conservative company,” said Mr. Pierce.

The salesman also emphasized the financial upside for the towns in their bid.

“There’s a one-time fee of $150,000 for each carrier for you, and then there’s revenue share. It starts at about 20 per cent revenue shared out between the towns,” he said. Chilmark would receive additional revenue of $1,200 a month for leasing space to host the DAS hub at the town landfill on Tabor House Road.

ATC builds cell towers primarily. The Vineyard project would be the company’s first public DAS project.

“DAS system is an expensive option,” he said. “It’s an aesthetic improvement that comes at a price.”

But many at the meeting argued that ATC’s proposed network of pylons represented a major departure from the unobtrusive whip antennas initially discussed.

“For three years we’ve been hearing about telephone poles with a cute thingy on top smaller than my husband’s fishing pole,” said Chilmark librarian Ebba Hierta. “From 2006 until last fall it was these telephone-mounted whip antennas and suddenly that’s very difficult.”

Alex Gamota, a consultant contracted to ATC for the Vineyard job, explained that Nantucket’s system of low visual impact whip antennas depends on third party use of the national grid utility pylons.

So far the Island electricity provider, NStar, has refused to allow use of its network of pylons.

“I encourage you to ask NStar why they don’t allow third party antenna access,” said Mr. Gamota.

At a Tuesday meeting, Chilmark selectmen voted to send a letter to NStar and Verizon requesting use of the pylons.

On Monday at one point, Chilmark planning board member William Meegan ducked out a side door and reappeared with a length of builder’s cardboard piping, 18 inches in diameter.

“This is supposed to be for a beautiful Island,” he said, “why does it have to be this big?”

Mr. Meegan later said he would vote against the bid as it currently stands.

Chilmark planning board chairman Janet Weidner read aloud several letters from residents opposing the bid, including Clarissa Allen, whose farm entrance abuts the site of one proposed pylon.

Mrs. Allen protested the positioning of the pylon on wetlands, and she spoke at the meeting against the principle of providing better cell phone service to satisfy the desires of seasonal residents.

“Yes, they love their cell phones, but they also love the rural character,” she said. “This represents incremental creep.”

The antenna system has been pursued as an alternative to cell phone towers for the past several years.

Cell tower coverage was the subject of a 2005 lawsuit between the town of Aquinnah and Cingular (now AT& T), when the phone company leased the steeple of the Aquinnah baptist church.

The resulting settlement requires Aquinnah to provide AT& T with a suitable alternative in order to block plans for a cell tower at the town landfill.

“If you have an adequate alternative to a cell tower you have no requirement to permit a cell tower,” explained selectman Camille Rose.

She warned that any such company would also have the right to build more than one tower, in order to protect their investment.

“You can’t even discuss health issues,” Ms. Rose said yesterday. “You can’t say it has to be 500 feet from a school. You’re really in a bind. The DAS emissions are miniscule compared to cell towers. It’s not in our nature to not fight Goliaths, but I wish people would realize there’s nothing we can do about it.”