LOCAL OPPOSITION appears to be growing to the MBTA’s plan to install more than 300, 75-foot poles along the commuter rail system to provide WiFi service to people riding trains.
The contract was initially announced in July 2014, during the administration of former governor Deval Patrick, and the full system was supposed to be operational by the end of 2015. An amended contract was signed in February by Brian Shortsleeve, the acting general manager of the T, that calls for the network to be up and running by August of next year.
Town officials in Andover say they learned about the project in May from a subcontractor who informed them of their right to object to the poles on historic preservation grounds. Andover officials quickly notified residents living near the railroad tracks about the poles and launched a page on the town website providing information.
The officials said they tried to meet with MBTA officials but were rebuffed twice, so they wrote to Gov. Charlie Baker; reached out Joseph Aiello, the chairman of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board; and contacted Joseph Sullivan, the mayor of Braintree who serves on the board overseeing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The letter to Baker asked the governor to suspend the project until the MBTA gives a complete presentation to the town of Andover. “Residents have been very vocal in their opposition to this project,” the letter said. “There are many unanswered questions, and our residents expect and demand more information.”
Alex Vispoli, vice chair of the Andover Board of Selectmen, said one of the poles would be located within 1,000 feet of Baker’s house in Swampscott. Vispoli said neither Aiello nor Sullivan knew anything about the WiFi project when he contacted them three weeks ago.
An MBTA spokesman said the Fiscal and Management Control Board is scheduled to be briefed on the WiFi initiative on Monday, but offered few other details.
The T spokesman said in an email that the project had received the blessing of the Massachusetts Historical Commission, but officials there say that’s not the case. Brona Simon, the state historic preservation officer, wrote a letter to the project manager earlier this month requesting photo simulations of the proposed installations in Andover to see if they negatively impact two historic neighborhoods in the community
The MBTA’s contractor for the WiFi project is inMOTION Wireless of Illinois, which was acquired in April by BAI Communications of Australia. The T’s original press release on the contract said the company would build a $5.6 million system at its own cost providing WiFi service and a live video feed. Premium WiFi would be available for $15 a month. The company also agreed to provide its service on MBTA ferries and at North, South, and Back Bay stations.
The contract’s duration is 24 years and it requires BAI to pay the MBTA 7.5 percent of its net revenues, meaning income after capital and maintenance expenses are deducted. The contract indicates BAI could buttress its revenue through advertising and other third-party agreements.
“This is one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen,” said Vispoli. He said the T’s share of revenue is way too small and the contract lasts way too long, given how technology in the communications industry is changing so rapidly.
A project proposal developed by inMotion in 2014 estimated the company would be earning nearly $68 million in net revenue in its sixth year of operation. At 7.5 percent, the T’s share would be about $5 million.
The inMotion proposal estimated nearly $81 million in gross revenues, split between WiFi ($4 million) and multimedia services ($77 million). The proposal estimated expenses in the sixth year, not including depreciation, at nearly $12 million.