Shore Report

Deadline Tightens to Bring Free Wi-Fi to Belmar Beachfront by Memorial Day

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Belmar officials continue to mull over a proposal by Verizon to offer free Wi-Fi service along the beachfront, which would include installing 22 nodes on new light poles along Ocean Avenue. Credits: Cathy Goetz
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BELMAR, NJ — Belmar and Verizon officials continue to hammer out the details of a plan to bring free wireless and enhanced cellular service to the Belmar beachfront by Memorial Day.

But the longer it takes for a deal to be approved, the less likely the project could be completed by that date — if at all, according to Robert McGuckin of Tilson Technology, a Clifton-based authorized representative for Verizon.

During the Belmar Borough Council’s February 6 meeting, Mayor Matthew Doherty said another two weeks are needed to review the proposal and to get more feedback before a final decision can be made. “I’m excited about this opportunity, but I think (we need) two more weeks to make sure we get it right,” he said.

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While McGuckin said he couldn’t say for sure the additional time could result in a deal-breaker for the project, but it will “place additional stress on an already-stressed timeline” to be completed in time for the May 26 holiday weekend.

Council President Brian Magovern cautioned against taking too long to make a decision because Verizon could take its proposal to another beachfront town, such as Long Branch or Manasquan. “This is a great opportunity for Belmar to have free Wi-Fi by Memorial Day. It would be a great start to the season,” he said.

Under a proposal unveiled to the borough council on January 17, Verizon would provide free Wi-Fi service along the 1.3-mile beachfront under a “trial project” that would be the first of its kind in United States for the telecommunications giant.

But before the project can begin, Verizon needs the borough’s official go-ahead to access the right-of-way along the boardwalk to install “22 nodes” to create the extended wireless network. This would entail replacing every third light pole along Ocean Avenue with one owned by SQF, LLC, a Tilson subsidiary, that is identical in size and style, as well as connecting the system in conduit that is already in place under the boardwalk.

Since Verizon made that initial presentation last month, discussions with Belmar officials have resulted in two major changes to the proposal. While Verizon would now provide free WiFi service for no less than five years — the original plan was for a minimum of two years — the company also wants the borough’s permission to install 10 new “nodes” in any area of the borough if or when the need to boost cellular service arises.

Whether this would result in the construction of more poles to accommodate the additional equipment remains a question — and a major reason why the borough at the request of the mayor and council is seeking input from Zoning Board Attorney Kevin Kennedy.

Mayor Doherty is also questioning the need for SQF, a competitive local exchange carrier, to have access rights to the new oceanfront light poles for 40 years.

“To put 40 years in perspective, 40 years ago we’d be talking about rotary dial pay phones. Forty years from now, are you going to be using those poles anyway?” Doherty asked McGuckin, senior site acquisition manager for Tilson. “I have a tough time wrapping my head around 40 years.”

McGuckin said that the 40-year term is the standard length of any access rights agreement entered into by the company. “It allows us to have confidence to address future needs and gives us security in the investment,” he said.

Council President Brian Magovern said that as long as the poles still hold the street lamps — “and the lights come on when it gets dark, that’s all the borough needs. I don’t see where the loss or gain is over the 40 years.”

Councilman Mark Walsifier said that he wanted to explore whether this type of proposal would need to meet state-mandated competitive bidding requirements. “What makes this different from any other vendor or concession?” he asked.

Another issue being addressed is whether the light poles along Ocean Avenue are in the state’s right-of-way or on borough property. If they are found to be on borough land, a lease agreement would need to be worked out between Verizon and Belmar before the poles can be replaced, according to Borough Attorney Gregory Cannon.

With the addition of at least another three years of free Wi-Fi service added to the proposal, McGuckin said the project is well over the original $4 million investment by New York-based Verizon.

The Wi-Fi coverage area would include Belmar’s entire oceanfront, including the water up to the surf break, as well as the boardwalk and Ocean Avenue, and extending westbound to about A Street.

The borough council’s next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, February 20, at 6 p.m. at the Belmar Municipal Building, 601 Main Street.

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