A brief, 527-foot ferry ride separates Edgartown proper from Chappaquiddick, the little sister island that lies to the east. But assume that voyage, and you step off the grid, surrendering access to reliable cell phone reception and the internet.
It’s an island off an island, quintessentially rural and remote. Walking along the only paved road, you will hear the rustle of reeds in the wind and see few people, even in summer save a handful of tourists.
And while most Islanders take their high-speed internet connections for granted these days, on Chappaquiddick the internet connections are notoriously slow and the cell phone reception is spotty.
When she needs to make a mobile call, resident Lynn Martinka often drives to the Chappaquiddick ferry parking lot or Sampson’s Hill, the highest point on Chappy. At home, her young children complain about the slow internet connection. Fortunately, she brings them to work with her, where they join increasing numbers of Chappaquiddickers who seek wireless internet at the Chappaquiddick Community Center.
Most of these WiFi users are summer renters, Ms. Martinka said. The center also offers decent cellular reception — as long as you stay outside and stand in one specific location, she said.
A gathering of Chappaquiddick residents at the Edgartown selectmen’s meeting this week revealed growing frustration over the lack of cell phone reception. With a solution still well out of reach, many said public safety is at stake.
“We are really concerned with the lack of cell phone coverage,” said Christopher Kennedy, Vineyard superintendent for The Trustees of Reservations who lives on the island.
Mr. Kennedy said the Trustees field as many as 200 calls for assistance each year on Chappy, a third of which are either garbled or dropped. Last week, his staff attended to a man who suffered a severe allergic reaction on a Chappaquiddick beach. Fortunately, he was able to send word to the gate house staff, who sent for an emergency medical technician.
“If this fellow had been out in East Beach and had that same severe reaction, I don’t know how long it would have taken that word to get back to a gate house,” Mr. Kennedy said.
Other residents had similar stories.
Robert Ozycz Sr. has no cell phone service at his property in the inner part of the island. He said a neighbor of his had a heart attack just two days after land lines came back online following a lightning storm. “If he had a heart attack before, when the land lines were out, he wouldn’t be here today,” Mr. Ozycz said “That’s our problem. We have no communication with the outside world with our cell phones, if we have them.”
So far, a campaign to bring better cellular coverage to Chappy has met with little success. A wireless committee was formed in 2011, and since then the town has issued three requests for proposals for a distributed antenna system (DAS). But the response has been negligible, mainly because Chappaquiddick is an unattractive business deal to prospective cellular carriers.
“They said we would make no return and it’s a very expensive project to construct and maintain,” said planning board assistant Georgiana Greenough, who served on the wireless committee.
While a DAS system could cost $1 million, the cost of a cell tower is estimated at $250,000, Ms. Greenough said.
But Chappaquiddickers have long been protective of the rural character of their island, and one roadblock in the effort to bring cell reception has been aesthetics.
“Everybody would like to have better cell phone service, but I think many people on Chappaquiddick are concerned about addressing something and then doing damage that will affect us for 50 years,” Lionel Spiro said at the meeting Monday.
A survey of residents presented Monday showed that 48 of 73 respondents felt the town should only allow construction of a DAS or similar system, a category that excludes a cell tower. “We all want better service,” said resident Peter Getsinger at the meeting. “We all want service that is environmentally sensitive, and that protects the pastoral quality of Chappy.”
Tom Tilghman expressed concern for tenants and young people. In a 911 emergency, he said, “probably anyone under the age of 21 isn’t going to even think of using a land line.”
There was consensus at the meeting to write a new RFP for cell coverage and broaden it to include all potential technologies.
Meanwhile, an ongoing effort to secure cable, and with it, high-speed internet access on Chappy, continues to languish with no clear end in sight.
After a long period of negotiations that involved Edgartown leaders during the renewal of a long-term cable contract for all the Vineyard towns, Comcast agreed last year to provide cable service to Chappaquididdick via an underwater NStar conduit already in place. But the deal hinged on a minimum number of guaranteed subscribers, and at a minimum price per household.
Today, the deal remains short about 80 subscribers, although there is some dispute about the numbers.
This week a group of residents decided to make a public appeal to Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts and President Obama through an advertisement placed in both Island newspapers. The ad features photographs of Chappy residents, including young people.
“There is an infrastructure here,” said Dennis Goldin, a doctor who lives on the island and is behind the campaign. “People live here year-round, and I think they are entitled to have internet.”
Efforts to engage the support of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have failed, he said.
Despite the lack of access, Chappy residents remain committed to their remote lifestyle.
“We see more animals than we do people, and we like that,” said Susan Gomez, a Chappy resident. “This place is wondrous. You get off the Chappy ferry and you are in a different world.”