Concord's downtown has had wi-fi issues for years. Photo by Jennifer Lord Paluzzi

Select Board eager to improve cell coverage in the center of town

By Betsy Levinson
February 14, 2023

Calling it an urgent priority, the Select Board is determined to strengthen and increase cell service, especially in and around the Milldam.

Scores of testimonial statements have come into the town offices bemoaning the dropped calls and lack of coverage, with a focus on public safety, according to Chief Technology Officer Jason Bulger.

“It’s a long-standing issue,” he said.

Along with safety, he cited a loss of economic benefit from businesses not wanting to locate in the town center, and quality of life with the center characterized as a “dead zone.”

Bulger said the town’s historic character as well as a bylaw that needs updating has hindered its ability to site adequate cell facilities on public buildings. 

The zoning bylaw covering cell service was written at a time when only voice transmission mattered, but now with the addition of huge amounts of data on personal phones, more facilities to provide coverage are needed.

“It’s been an uphill battle for a long time,” said Bulger. “The issues that were raised in 2003 still exist.”

Tthe town is exploring four sites: the Umbrella Center for the Arts, Emerson Field, the Trinitarian Congregational Church and the town’s public service buildings on Walden Street.

A fifth potential site is the Keyes Road municipal complex, but Bulger said there are issues specific to that site that make it less desirable.

He said the School Committee and school department are negotiating with Verizon for an installation at the high school, but that wouldn’t necessarily improve service in the center of town.

There are pros and cons to each site, but the board’s consensus was that the Umbrella provided the best solution.

The Tricon Church on Walden Street offered great coverage, but negotiations between Verizon and the church, both private entities, have dragged on for years and a conclusion is not imminent. The church had a Sprint device in its cupola for 25 years.

“No site is perfect,” said Bulger.

Regarding the Umbrella, Bulger said public support is not robust, as the building has artists’ studios and programs that are open to the public.

Emerson Field would need visible new structures that would be subject to Historic Districts Commission review and may “affect the character of the town,” Bulger noted.

Concord Business Partnership members have suggested using their own offices as potential sites.

“Everything is on the table,” said Bulger.

Select Board member Terri Ackerman zeroed in on updating the bylaw, but lamented that it would have to wait a year to come before Town Meeting.

Colleague Mary Hartman said that possibly variances or a waiver could be granted to a carrier so that the town would not have to wait for a year for bylaw review.

Linda Escobedo said political will was necessary.

“We need to be braver,” said Escobedo.

Henry Dane called for a strategy to get the best coverage in the shortest time. 

“It’s a matter of urgency,” said Terri Ackerman. “The Select Board is ready to move quickly.”