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MBTA Stops Controversial Monopole WiFi Towers Project

BOSTON (CBS) – The MBTA is stopping a controversial project to upgrade Wi-Fi service by installing hundreds of 70-foot monopoles along the Commuter Rail system.

In a statement Thursday, the T said it "notified BAI Communications that it will not approve the company's current proposed implementation of the Wi-Fi system."

The project, first uncovered by the WBZ-TV I-Team in June, brought a wave of opposition from residents on the North Shore, as well as federal and state lawmakers.

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

"In a letter to BAI, the MBTA said the proposal is not consistent with the license agreement, and cited concerns among members of the public and among federal and state legislators concerning the project's impact on historic sites and community character," the T said in its statement.

"The MBTA said the license anticipated a more modest project involving the use of "short monopoles" or "existing light poles" to provide Wi-Fi, with only "excess space" available for lease to third party communication providers. BAI's current proposal would double the size of every pole (and install an extensive fiber network) for the purpose of creating infrastructure to lease."

The 320 large poles would have been installed along the MBTA's right-of-way, which is exempt from local zoning laws.

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

As a result, the only agency that had direct oversight of the approval process was the FCC.

The Wi-Fi contract granted Australian-based BAI Communications with a 24-year deal that would have allowed the company to build the entire $140 million network at its own cost.

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

The MBTA is now asking BAI to come up with a new proposal with more modest monopoles.

Ray Howell, a spokesperson for BAI, said the company looks forward to working with the MBTA.

"The installation of free, high-speed wi-fi on the Commuter Rail, as outlined under a contract between the MBTA and BAI Communications, will have enormous benefits for commuters, the environment, the economy, local communities, public safety and MBTA finances," Howell said. "BAI looks forward to working with the MBTA and local officials on a system that delivers these benefits while minimizing impacts to areas located along the Commuter Rail's existing corridors."

No MBTA towers

As a result, the Wi-Fi project will no longer be on the agenda for next Monday's MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board meeting.

Board members had extended their review process until August 14 as they gathered details about the contract, which was signed in 2014.

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey said all parties involved need to find the appropriate balance for the project. "We must preserve our unique cultural and historic sites as we strive to enhance the Wi-Fi service on our commuter rail system," Markey said.

WBZ-TV I-Team reporter Ryan Kath contributed to this story.

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