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Wireless service study shows much of Harvard has ‘marginal coverage’

On Sept. 22, employees of Isotrope LLC drove every public road in Harvard measuring cell phone signal strength of the 4G networks provided by three wireless carriers—AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. Isotrope CEO David Maxson presented the drive test results to the Select Board at its Nov. 16 meeting in the form of coverage maps for each of the three providers. The maps showed what most residents already know—cell phone signals are marginal to poor in most of Harvard.

The worst coverage areas were the center, south-central, southwest, and northeast sections of town. Verizon’s coverage fared the best; T-Mobile was the worst. Most of the town’s roads were color-coded blue for all three carriers, which Maxson said means a reliable signal for someone standing outdoors, but a less-than-reliable signal for users inside a building or a moving car. He added that “blue” coverage is also undesirable because the cell tower has to work harder to get a signal to users, which he said is a waste of resources.

The town contracted with Isotrope earlier this year for the study, which also included recommendations for cell tower sites to improve coverage and maps of estimated coverage should the proposed towers be installed. The study cost just under $10,000, funded by the Select Board’s purchased services budget.

Maxson said two sites would substantially improve coverage in the center of town and to the south: one on town-owned land just to the west of Hildreth House, and one at the summit of Bolton Road, an area that is all privately owned. Isotrope also looked at the Bolton Road water tank site since that land is town-owned. Maxson said that site was not ideal because the signal going to the southeast would get “chopped off” by the terrain. In the northeast section of town, a new tower along Route 2A in Ayer or on one of the large private properties in that part of Harvard, such as the golf course, would be good options to improve coverage, according to Isotrope’s report.

Maxson also suggested revising town bylaws to entice carriers to install cell towers in Harvard. He said when a carrier’s site acquisition expert looks at a town’s bylaws, they are looking for whether variances will be necessary. “They will follow the path of least resistance,” he said, and suggested that zoning relief could be achieved by creating “wireless overlay districts” that would apply only to specific sites.

Town Meeting would have to approve the leasing of town-owned land for any purpose, including a cell tower. The Select Board will discuss the options at a future meeting.

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