The tiny population of Cuttyhunk has won its David and Goliath battle with Comcast. The giant telecommunications company this week reversed its decision to pull the plug on the islanders’ do-it-yourself high speed Internet service.
Cuttyhunkers are expected to rejoin the modern world within the next week, as soon as Comcast can wrap up a formal vendor agreement with the man who had developed the island’s innovative wireless network over the past five years, Mark Storek.
Once that agreement is signed, Internet traffic should flow again almost immediately, in exactly the same way it previously did: via Comcast service to the home of Aquinnah resident Hugh Taylor, then by radio link to several houses on Cuttyhunk, then via WiFi to the rest of the island.
That arrangement will continue until Comcast can work out a better way to provide the service itself, the company promised.
Exactly how long that would take was uncertain. A spokeswoman for Comcast said yesterday that it would depend on how quickly the company’s technicians could find a way to offer an alternative, but it would likely run until the end of this year.
The decision to reinstate the link is a remarkable turnaround for Comcast. Since cutting off the link last September, the company had resisted all entreaties for it to do something to provide Internet service to the Cuttyhunk.
This was despite lobbying from islanders themselves, the Dukes County manager Russell Smith and local state representative Timothy Madden. Just 10 days ago, at a meeting between company executives and islanders, they refused again to help.
Comcast argued they could not legally allow Mr. Storek’s little network to operate, as it would be a breach of their terms of service.
They said security, liability and contractual concerns meant there was nothing they could do. Among the reasons was a claim that in the event a law enforcement agency sought to subpoena information relating to a Cuttyhunk resident’s Internet use, the company would not be able to do it, and so wind up in legal trouble itself.
The same arguments were advanced when the Gazette contacted a company spokesman, Marc Goodman, last week.
He later released a formal statement saying: “Comcast actively defends our network and our customers from service theft which can negatively impact area consumers and businesses who are paying Comcast to receive TV, phone and high speed services.”
Mr. Goodman said the only alternative for Cuttyhunkers was to find another corporate service provider — which was effectively no solution, for the only alternatives are cellular Internet providers like Verizon and AT& T, which are relatively expensive, very slow and less reliable.
This week, however, after the Gazette’s story, and follow-up inquiries by other, major media, the company quickly shifted its position.
Mr. Storek was contacted on Wednesday by a company vice president, Mary McLaughlin, and told the company would allow his little network to reconnect. As of yesterday afternoon, however, he had heard nothing further from the company, his only updates on progress coming through reporters who contacted him.
And a different company spokesperson, public relations vice president Shawn Feddeman, spoke to the Gazette, saying the company had “consistently said we would evaluate potential options” for a solution to Cuttyhunk’s Internet needs.
She denied media exposure had precipitated a change in position, and said it was “only in last several weeks” that Comcast had become aware of the scope of the communications problem for Cuttyhunk.
Ms. Feddeman later e-mailed a statement.
“It is always our desire to provide service to as much of Comcast’s footprint as possible,” the statement said.
“But providing service to remote communities like Cuttyhunk can provide special challenges that, in turn, require creative solutions which can sometimes take a little while to work out.
“We are very pleased that we were able to craft a solution here that will quickly that will quickly restore service to Cuttyhunk and will allow the residents of Cuttyhunk to enjoy Internet service.”
Ms. Fedderman said the delivery system would be exactly the same as it was previously: that is, via two multi-user business connections under Mr. Storek’s name, installed at Mr. Taylor’s house. From there, the signal would be transmitted by radio to Cuttyhunk, and distributed by WiFi through the same hardware Mr. Storek installed over some five years of trial and error. There would be no change to the pricing.
Ms. Fedderman did make a point of noting the fees Mr. Storek charges to users of his system — a $250 installation fee and $60 a month for year-round residents and $75 a month for seasonal visitors.
When this was relayed to Mr. Storek, he objected to the implication that he had made money out of his network.
“I have never made a dime from this,” he said. “In fact, when I recently added up the amount I have put into it over the five years, I’m still about $22,000 in the hole, and that does not include my travel expenses. I’ve been almost sick over it.”
He had never sought to free ride on Comcast’s service, but had always paid for premium “Business Class” multi user connections, he said.
The work of maintaining the system had also taken a lot of the relaxation out of his vacations, he said. (The Florida WiFi specialist has been a lifelong seasonal resident of Cuttyhunk.)
But he had done it, he said, as a community service, and islanders had come to depend on it. It had been a boost to the local economy; the harbor committee used it for bookings, and 50 per cent of the increased revenue was used for other improvements around the town.
And other Cuttyhunkers also testified to the advantages Mr. Storek’s network — which was used by 42 year-round residents and maybe another 40 seasonal residents at any given time during summer — had provided. Children at the tiny school had used it to videolink with other classrooms, and receive feeds on current events. The island’s resident doctor, Seymour DiMare, could use it to organize the summer clinics he arranges with visiting medicos, with all the credentialing and malpractice arrangements that entails. The library used it, town hall used it, it was used for online shopping, bookings for island accommodation, and had been the island’s only form of communication during a couple of major blizzards.
Mr. Storek even questioned whether it was legal for Cuttyhunk not to have a high speed internet connection, given that large quantities of fuel are stored on the Island, which the Department of Homeland Security now requires to be under constant video surveillance.
There are several ironies to the whole Comcast saga, apart from the fact that the giant telco has now discovered a solution which was there all along.
For one, even though those involved in the Cuttyhunk network have had problems with Comcast’s management, they have nothing but praise for its local employees.
“Over the years Comcast service technicians always bent over backwards to help us whenever there was a problem,” said the network’s Vineyard linkman, Mr. Taylor.
For another, Mr. Storek, a person who deals every day with such technology as vice president for wireless engineering for a company that specializes in video surveillance for police departments, had always enjoyed visits to Cuttyhunk to get away from it.
“I have a no-technology rule in my house there,” he said.
“People who come there have to take off their watches. There is a 20-minute limit on how long anyone can be on the Internet each day.”
“So, if Comcast comes up with an alternative network, that’s great, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll gladly pack up my tent and leave it to them,” Mr. Storek said.