I-Team: Monopole Moratorium Extended for MBTA’s Controversial WiFi Project

BOSTON (CBS) — Questions and concerns continue to swirl around the MBTA’s controversial plan to upgrade WiFi service by installing hundreds of 74-foot monopoles along the Commuter Rail system.

On Monday, Fiscal and Management Control Board members listened to more than an hour of public feedback during another crowded meeting. Homeowners and state lawmakers representing communities like Rockport, Andover, Medford, Acton and Manchester-by-the-Sea voiced their opposition to the project.

Board members extended their review process until August 14 as they continue to gather details about the contract inked in 2014. The MBTA had previously announced a 30-day review of the project amid an outcry from North Shore communities.

mbta tower sign jpeg I Team: Monopole Moratorium Extended for MBTA’s Controversial WiFi Project

A sign protesting an MBTA plan to install monopoles along the Commuter Rail system to upgrade WiFi. (WBZ-TV)

“There is deep, deep concern,” Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, a Gloucester Republican, told board members. “There does not seem to be a satisfactory amount of communication or interaction with the communities that will be affected by this project.”

For the first time, the MBTA also shared a map of all 320 proposed monopole locations. The structures would be installed along the MBTA’s right-of-way, which is exempt from local zoning laws.

As a result, the only agency that has direct oversight of the approval process is the FCC. The I-Team previously reported the Massachusetts congressional delegation wants the federal agency to “carefully review” the project.

The WiFi contract grants Australian-based BAI Communications with a 24-year deal would allow the company to build the entire $140 million network at its own cost.

Basic service would 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.

On Monday, interim MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak shared some of the findings of the 30-day review. He said the agency would not receive revenue from the project until the company had recouped its capital investment.

mbta sign I Team: Monopole Moratorium Extended for MBTA’s Controversial WiFi Project

(WBZ-TV)

“That leads us to conclude that the net revenue paid to the MBTA over the life of the contract will not be significant,” Poftak said.

The MBTA has said the existing WiFi service on the commuter rail is a common source of customer complaints. Poftak said the project has the potential to provide better WiFi and cellular service along the tracks.

He also said the WiFi transmitters will be place about 35 feet on the monopoles. The remained height of the structures would be leased to commercial carriers.

MBTA counsel who reviewed the contract said there is no “termination for convenience clause,” meaning the agency cannot simply cancel the deal if it chooses.

Community members say they were blindsided by the project, which they claim would drag down property values and damage historical neighborhoods.

Andover town leaders and homeowners were the first to question the initiative in early June.

“I would like to apologize for wearing shorts to this dignified meeting, but I’m on vacation,” Andover resident Carey Poe told the board. “I came from Cape Cod, the one week of the I year I get to spend with my entire family. That’s how important this is to my wife and me. We have to live with the decision you’re going to make.”

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

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