MBTA's overdue Wi-Fi system faces opposition
The T wants to add more Wi-Fi towers along the Commuter Rail routes, but residents are becoming an obstacle to the project.
Commuter rail riders hailing from communities north of Boston want better wireless internet service, but a vocal group is upset about the communication towers that are planned to achieve that aim.
As a wireless vendor moves closer to fulfilling an agreement inked three years ago, residents from Andover and Manchester-By-The-Sea complained that the installation of wifi towers would mar their towns' historic looks.
Manchester-By-The-Sea Town Administrator Gregory Federspiel said the town has hidden a cellular tower within a flagpole at the marina and urged the T to seek alternatives to the freestanding poles intended to offer wifi to commuter rail passengers. He noted riders do desire better wifi.
Members of the MBTA's Fiscal and Management Control Board had their own questions about the contract to improve wifi service, and officials plan to provide answers to the board later this summer.
"What is the business model here?" asked Steve Poftak, a control board member who will become the T's interim executive next month.
MBTA Chief Railroad Officer Ryan Coholan said the vendor is covering the $140 million in construction and operational costs.
The wifi contract was awarded to inMOTION Wireless, Inc. in 2014, and under the deal the vendor will bear the costs of building the system. Free wifi would be improved and riders would also be able to pay $15 per month for "premium" wifi that will provide strong enough connections to stream video, according to the initial announcement. Board member Monica Tibbits-Nutt commented that free wifi service, in general, is "awful."
The T would receive 7.5 percent of the revenue generated by the project, which would include leases from wireless providers, fiber leases and wifi advertising and service fees, according to the transit agency. The new wifi towers would replace the commuter rail's wireless internet dating back to 2009 that is dependent on cell phone service in the area where the trains travel.
MBTA Control Board Chairman Joseph Aiello asked if it would be safe to say that no towers will be installed before the end of August, and Coholan responded, "That's a very reasonable statement."
Coholan said the plan is to install 320 poles across the system, bury nearly 400 miles of fiber cable along the tracks, and install equipment on the poles and trains to improve cellular and wifi coverage for commuters and for future MBTA operational use.
Coholan said wifi service has been installed on the Cape Flyer seasonal train service, and the plan is for the network to be "completely operational" by the end of next year. He said 41 municipalities to the north of Boston have been notified about 110 pole installations and some officials have "expressed concern."
"There hadn't been any forward motion on this project for quite some time," remarked Lauren Armstrong, an attorney for the MBTA.
In April 2016, MBTA chief information officer Gary Foster wrote to colleagues that following discussions about how to restructure the commuter rail wifi contract a "new structure has been agreed upon," according to an email obtained by the News Service.
About a year ago an MBTA spokesman said inMOTION recently requested a 15-month extension to complete "build out" of the project. Spokesman Joe Pesaturo told the News Service at the time, "If the MBTA grants the extension, the project is to be completed by the end of next year."
This past March, Australia-based BAI Communications announced it had acquired inMOTION, reporting that it had "an exclusive 22-year license" from the T to "design, build, finance and operate a multi-application high speed network along the MBTA Commuter Rail System and on MBTA ferries, thus providing ubiquitous Wi-Fi access to MBTA commuters."
At Monday's public comment period for the control board, Jean Cookson, of Andover, complained that the wifi towers will create an "eyesore" in her neighborhood. Andover resident Bob Zimmerman said that the historic Shawsheen Village was designed with a "very particular" eye towards "visual impact," which he said the wifi towers would disturb.
"I stand before you not as an obstructionist. We know this is going to move forward. We want to be a partner," Rep. Brad Hill, an Ipswich Republican, told the control board. He said, "We need to work together on this particular issue."
Carey Poe, of Andover, said he will seek to mobilize the communities along the commuter rail that will be affected by the wifi installation.
"We will not stop until all 60 communities are notified about what this plan entails," Poe told the board.
Andover Republican Rep. James Lyons urged T officials to halt the installations.
"The values of the homes are going to go down dramatically," Lyons said.