I-Team: MBTA To Review Controversial WiFi Project

BOSTON (CBS) – The MBTA announced on Friday it is hitting the brakes on a controversial WiFi contract, launching a “30-day assessment” of the project.

As first reported by the WBZ I-Team earlier this month, the project would upgrade wireless internet service on commuter rail lines, long a source of customer complaints, according to the transit agency.

However, the project would install 74-foot monopoles along roughly every mile of track. Rolled out on the north side of the commuter rail system first, 300 structures would eventually be erected.

The WBZ I-Team obtained a list of the first 110 proposed locations, which can be viewed on the map below.

Homeowners, town officials and state lawmakers say they were kept in the dark about the poles. They argue the proposed locations would hurt property values and damage historic neighborhoods.

On Monday, a steady procession of opponents spoke out at a board meeting and urged MBTA leaders to reconsider.

The WiFi contract was inked in 2014, predating the formation of the Fiscal Management Control Board. During the meeting, board members heard details about the project for the first time.

balloon I Team: MBTA To Review Controversial WiFi Project

Balloons show height of proposed Commuter Rail Wi-Fi tower in Andover (WBZ-TV)

Awarded to inMotion Wireless (since acquired by an Australian company), the 22-year deal would allow the company to build the entire network along the MBTA right-of-way at its own cost.

Basic service will be free for commuters, with a faster premium service available for a fee. The MBTA would receive 7.5% of the net revenue, according to the arrangement.

Board members asked a number of questions and expressed concern about the financial arrangement, lack of communication with municipalities, and possibly outdated technology.

With Friday’s announcement, the MBTA said it is hitting the pause button during the 30-day review.

“There will be no construction of poles or other infrastructure during this review, which will include comments and other feedback from customers, elected officials, and residents,” a MBTA spokeswoman said.

balloon3 I Team: MBTA To Review Controversial WiFi Project

Balloons show height of proposed Commuter Rail Wi-Fi tower in Andover (WBZ-TV)

Sen. Barbara L’Italien, who represents the Andover, took the news as a promising development. She is calling for the contract to be cancelled.

“It’s a sign that our activism and advocacy is working,” L’Italien told WBZ. “I plan to fully utilize this time to continue to coordinate an organized effort among my colleagues across government to oppose this project.”

It is unclear if the MBTA will face any financial penalties for the delay—or if it ultimately pulls the plug. A spokeswoman said staff members are reviewing the contract language and could answer that question next week.

Meantime, opposition continues to grow as more municipalities learn of the proposed monopole locations.

On Friday, in a letter obtained by WBZ, Medford Mayor Stephanie Burke lamented the lack of communication, saying there are many unanswered questions about the three monopoles planned for her city.

“Currently the only certainty regarding this project is that it has not been subject to public discussion or input,” Burke wrote.

Ryan Kath can be reached at rkath@cbs.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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