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MBTA hits pause on commuter rail WiFi plan

Passengers entered North Station after riding on the MBTA’s Fitchburg/South Acton Commuter Rail line.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

The MBTA hit pause on a plan to improve wireless Internet service on Greater Boston’s commuter rail trains Friday amid opposition from several nearby communities.

The T announced it would step back and conduct a 30-day “assessment” of the project, which would involve installing more than 300 75-foot towers along the rail lines that would create better wireless and cellular connections.

But leaders in some cities and towns have been protesting the plan, arguing the towers would disrupt historic and residential areas. Additionally, elected officials and members of the public were given little opportunity to weigh in on the proposal, critics said.

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Now they’ll have the opportunity, the T said Friday.

“There will be no construction of poles or other infrastructure during this review, which will include comments and other feedback from customers, elected and appointed officials, and residents,” MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said in a statement.

The MBTA declined to make anyone available for an interview, and officials did not respond to e-mailed questions about whether the assessment period could result in cancellation of the project. Battiston said officials would discuss the project at an upcoming MBTA board meeting, but it was unclear how the agency would solicit public comment before the meeting.

Alex Vispoli, a selectman in Andover, has been leading resistance to the plan in that town. He celebrated the T’s announcement Friday.

“It was wrong. It was an intrusion in thickly settled neighborhoods,” he said of the plan. “We’re glad this is being looked at.”

David Perry, an Ashland resident and activist for better commuter rail service, said he is looking forward to the wireless connectivity upgrade.

“That would be a real big boost for my commuting life and productivity in getting work done,” he said.

Rail line abutters should understand that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Perry said.

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The project was slated to get underway this summer. The T began planning the project in 2014, when the administration of then-Governor Deval Patrick signed an agreement with the company installing the system, InMotion Wireless.

InMotion would install the system, shouldering the $140 million cost, and share 7.5 percent of revenue from sponsorships, infrastructure leasing, and a premium wireless service with the T. The system would include a free service for commuters.

InMotion was acquired this year by another telecommunications firm, BAI Communications, which did not respond to a request for comment.

When the T began notifying cities and towns of the upcoming project, some decried the project due to the size of the towers, while others criticized the T’s communication and outreach strategy.

Vispoli said officials were only given one real way to contest the plan, by filing federal complaints about how the towers could affect historic neighborhoods, and Andover officials set up a website to inform residents about the plan. Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken told the Gloucester Times she was “beyond appalled” with the T.

In a presentation to the transit agency’s board Monday, MBTA officials said 41 communities have been notified about the project so far. Some had raised significant concerns, they said, but most had not.

Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino told the Globe prior to the T’s announcement that he was not concerned about the towers because the MBTA is already installing tall infrastructure near the city’s commuter rail tracks as part of the Silver Line extension.

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Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.