Can you hear them now?
Concord’s spotty cellular service is the stuff of legend, aggravation, and downright worry, and how to deal with it has been the stuff of hot debate. But separate surveys conducted recently by the town and school committee show overwhelming backing for better service — and specifically for a cell tower at Concord-Carlisle High School.
The overwhelming majority of school survey respondents — 566, or nearly 75% — supported a cell tower on the CCHS campus. About 18.4%, or 139, opposed a campus tower. The rest said they weren’t sure.
Of the 758 school survey responses, 572, or 75.5%, came from people who identified themselves as parents and 90, or just under 12%, came from staff members. The rest came from self-identified community members and students.
School Committee Chair Tracey Marano said her group’s voluntary questionnaire went out to parents in both school districts, as well as employees, through the superintendent’s messaging system on October 13. The survey closed on October 23.
“The safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and community is our priority, and our committee is concerned about the lack of cell service on our campus,” she wrote in an email accompanying the survey.
Marano also noted CCHS has already taken steps to install blue-light call stations “so the community can directly access police and fire in the event of an emergency.”
Safety has been an issue. Besides families being unable to connect on afterschool plans and pickups, there have been specific incidents — including when Superintendent Laurie Hunter said poor service hampered her ability to summon help in May when a school bus got hit by a minivan. Fire Chief Thomas Judge has also cited the case of “a high school teacher who was dealing with a medical emergency who couldn’t reach 911.”
Passion — both for and against a CCHS tower — came through in written comments supplementing the school survey’s questions.
Tower supporters said they wanted to be able to contact their children for routine matters and, most importantly, in an emergency. Some said they wanted the ability to monitor their kid’s medical devices — or their geolocation — remotely. At least one questioned whether technological barriers to communication might end up a liability issue for the town.
Opponents frequently brought up the effect a tower might have on health, particularly concerns — ranging from mild to intense — about potential radiation exposure. Some said they want more conclusive research. More than a few argued Concord would do better to consider a location other than the CCHS campus, such as the town composting site or a nearby solar panel field.
Research on the potential health impacts of cell towers continues and is more warranted — but is not yet conclusive, according to the American Cancer Society. Addressing radiofrequency emissions from cellular towers, the Federal Communications Commission has said “there is no reason to believe that such towers could constitute a potential health hazard to nearby residents or students.”
The separate, self-selecting town-run survey on cell connectivity had garnered at least 157 responses as of late October, according to Communications Director Donna McIntosh. Of those, 106 respondents identified themselves as Concord residents. In that voluntary online survey:
- An overwhelming 92%, or 145, respondents said they did not find cellular coverage in Concord adequate for their needs.
- The majority said they used Verizon/Comcast, followed by AT&T, T-Mobile or another carrier.
- Nearly all — 146, or 93% — answered yes when asked, “Do you support adding wireless infrastructure in the downtown area to increase mobile coverage?”
- About 85%, or 133, said yes when asked, “Do you support adding wireless infrastructure on the Concord-Carlisle High School grounds to improve mobile coverage?”
The Concord Bridge requested data from both surveys after Town Manager Kerry Lafleur highlighted them during a recent update to the Select Board.
The School Committee declined to comment on how the results might play into how it will address the question of placing a tower at CCHS.
Select Board Chair Henry Dane, who’s decried Concord’s unreliable cellular coverage as “a disgrace,” said there’s been progress in talks about putting a Verizon antenna inside the steeple of the Trinitarian Congregational Church on Walden Street. The steeple formerly housed a Sprint apparatus, which was removed last year.
As for those who object to more Concord cell towers, Dane said he doesn’t “want to dismiss people’s concerns.”
But “there’s some balancing of risk and need that needs to be done,” he said, “in order to accomplish something that’s really very important for the town and its citizens and its public safety.”