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Telecom rollouts raise ire over ugly utility boxes
PHILADELPHIA -- The road to advanced video, Internet and phone services is bumpy -- and the bumps can be almost as big as refrigerators.
As cable and phone companies race to upgrade services or offer video for the first time, they're doing it by installing equipment in boxes on lawns, easements and curbs all over American neighborhoods. Telecommunications rollouts have always been messy, but several towns and residents are fighting back.
AT&T Inc.'s nearly fridge-sized units, which route its new U-verse video product to customers, are drawing ire. A few caught fire or even exploded. AT&T said it has fixed that by replacing the units' backup batteries.
That's not much comfort to David Crommie, who thinks the boxes are an eyesore. Crommie, who is president of a San Francisco neighborhood group called the Cole Valley Improvement Association, complained after seeing some boxes sprout in town and managed to delay AT&T's plans to install up to 850. AT&T now is expected to reapply for an exemption to the city's environmental-review procedures.
"We have nothing against the technology. We just don't want that delivery system," Crommie said. "It's 19th-century packaging for 21st-century technology."
AT&T's rival Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable company, apparently thought so too. It ran ads in Illinois calling the cabinets "giant utility boxes." In most locations, U-verse cabinets are 4 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 2 feet deep.
AT&T didn't think it was funny and sued Comcast in March for running a "false, deceptive and disparaging advertising campaign." The companies signed a standstill agreement in May.
Aboveground or buried
But Comcast has utility box problems of its own.
Several residents in Lower Makefield Township, about 30 miles northeast of Philadelphia, got upset when new boxes from Comcast popped up around town, sometimes between driveways.
"All of a sudden we have cable boxes appear," said 64-year-old resident Bernie Goldberg. "They seem to think our community is their open job site."
He wants to know why Comcast can't bury the new boxes, which are about a foot tall and wide, and 2 feet long. Comcast said aboveżground boxes can be accessed more easily and are more reliable.
But Goldberg noted that Verizon Communications Inc. was able to bury its fiber-optic boxes underground in town -- a fact the phone company was more than eager to confirm. (Verizon also has had installation mishaps with its new FiOS service, such as fires at homes in Pennsylvania and Virginia.)
For Goldberg and other residents of Lower Makefield Township, arguing with Comcast over cable boxes is a familiar fight. They battled the installation of aboveground boxes in the 1990s with Comcast's predecessor and won.
This time, Township Supervisor Matt Maloney said residents felt Comcast's boxes were an "intrusion."
"They're putting it in without permits," he said. "It is their contention they are not required to do so. It's our contention that they are."
Comcast, which has installed 50 boxes and doesn't plan to add more, said it is working with the township to resolve these issues.
A resolution has yet to come to Geneva, Ill., where Mayor Kevin Burns is furious with AT&T.
A few years ago Geneva passed a 180-day moratorium that effectively stopped installations of AT&T's U-verse cabinets. The phone company sued Geneva and six other Illinois municipalities for restricting its plans. AT&T claimed it had the right to use public rights of way for its telecom network.
Burns said his city merely wanted some say.
"If we were going to have our landscape dotted with refrigerator-size boxes, we should have some control over them," Burns said.
Illinois passed a law last year fast-tracking approval for cable rivals to enter the pay-TV market, stripping away much of the clout wielded by municipalities. Geneva dropped a countersuit against AT&T in 2007 and gave it permits for installing U-verse boxes in early August.
But all this time, AT&T has maintained its suit against the city. Burns said that "is beyond my comprehension."
An AT&T spokesman would not comment on the lawsuit.
There are signs AT&T is learning from its earlier missteps.
In Springfield, Ill., AT&T has agreed to pay the city $1,500 for each of the 75 to 100 U-verse cabinets it plans to install. The money will be used for landscaping that can make the boxes blend with the environment, said city spokesman Ernie Slottag.
AT&T also recently installed about 120 U-verse boxes in Santa Rosa, Calif., after that city worked with the phone company and Comcast to find locations for their equipment. Eric McHenry, the city's chief technology officer, said AT&T's units were trickier to place since they were much larger than Comcast's boxes.
But while Santa Rosa had limited say on the cabinets -- units go into public utility easements and, like Illinois, California had passed a fast-track video franchise law -- McHenry said AT&T relocated boxes when requested.
"We didn't theoretically have the ability to say no," he said. "We asked them to move certain locations and they voluntarily did."