OpenCape Lands Deal to Boost Phone Service

By Lorelei Stevens, Cape Cod Times

Posted Jul. 6, 2015 at 8:11 PM

Halting reception, pregnant pauses, dropped calls. Cape cellphone reception is iffy at times, and it only gets worse in the summer as data demands climb. “Pockets of East Sandwich are absolutely horrible for cellphones,” Sandwich Fire Department Capt. Timothy McMahon said. But things are about to get better.

On Monday, CapeNet, the company that maintains and operates the OpenCape fiber-optic network, announced it has inked a deal with a major wireless carrier to expand data capacity and improve the performance of cellphones and other mobile devices.

The wireless company and the value of the deal were not revealed because of a nondisclosure agreement, according to CapeNet spokesman Matt Ellis, but the arrangement involves connecting 51 cell towers on the Cape, plus another eight towers in the Plymouth area, to the OpenCape network.

While there’s no wire involved in making a cellphone call or streaming a video onto a tablet, the cell towers that relay all that information do it over hard-wired lines.

Dan Gallagher, former OpenCape CEO and now a senior consultant to the corporation, explained that today’s cell service trouble is the result of a shortage of “backhaul” capacity, the amount of data the cellphone company’s hard-wired system can handle. “Connecting fiber optics to 51 towers will solve that problem,” he said.

Cape Cod's Backbone

OpenCape is a nonprofit group that has used federal, state, county and private funds to build an advanced two-pronged, 470-mile fiber-optic “spine” that runs through Southeastern Massachusetts and the Cape.

The northern prong starts in Brockton and goes across the canal via the Sagamore Bridge. The southern prong starts in Providence and crosses the canal over the railroad bridge. The cable, much of which is buried underground and linked in several spots, converges in Orleans and runs straight to Provincetown.

“The laterals that come off the spine are like vertebrae,” Ellis said. “That’s what has to be built out from the network to the towers.”

Construction of these “fiber branches” is expected to be completed by the end of the year. After that, the wireless provider will begin upgrades to the equipment it operates on the towers and customers should see service improvements by next summer.

This project alone won’t solve every service gap issue, Ellis said, but once the one wireless carrier secures the upgraded service, it likely will be less expensive and more appealing for the three other major carriers to buy in.

The deal is also good for OpenCape’s mission, Gallagher said, because the more cable used, the more feasible it becomes in terms of demand and cost to extend the super high-speed network farther away from the main spine to businesses, villages, apartment buildings and, eventually, even single-family homes.

Currently, the OpenCape network delivers broadband service to more than 100 facilities, including libraries, government buildings, schools, hospitals and public safety agencies.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Cape Cod Community College, Hy-Line Cruises and Hydroid Inc. are among the research and education organizations and private businesses that use the network’s data-transport and Internet service.

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