AT&T tries again with U-Verse boxes in SF

Neighbors complain that the cabinets for the fast fiber network will be eyesores

AT&T is taking a second shot at deploying its high-speed U-Verse service in San Francisco, and on Tuesday afternoon it will once again face activists who oppose its plan to place hundreds of U-Verse equipment cabinets on the city's sidewalks.

U-Verse is a combination of digital TV, voice over IP and Internet access, with promised speeds up to 24M bps. To provide it, AT&T has to lay fiber-optic cables to each neighborhood and then deliver the services the rest of the way to subscribers' homes over existing copper wires. Bringing the two types of lines together requires a cabinet for every few blocks of homes that is 51.7 inches wide, 26 inches deep and 48 inches high.

In 2008, the city's planning department exempted AT&T's plan to install these cabinets from the requirement for an environmental impact review (EIR). But after just 14 of the 850 planned boxes had been deployed, the project was halted by an appeal from neighborhood activists. So AT&T stopped bringing U-Verse to San Francisco and started planning how to gain approval for a future rollout, said Marc Blakeman, regional vice president of external affairs.

Last year, the carrier returned with its second effort. It cut the number of boxes to 726, met with 105 community groups and set up a special website about the project. AT&T officials even went on walking tours with neighborhood groups to scope out possible sites for the boxes. Once again, AT&T earned an EIR exemption but opponents then appealed it. On Tuesday, the city's ruling Board of Supervisors will hear testimony from both sides.

A fight over faster Internet access is somewhat ironic in San Francisco, which owes so much of its economy to the Web. But in addition to being a digital mecca, the city prides itself on its historic neighborhoods and walkable streets, both of which activists say would be harmed by AT&T's new infrastructure.

"We shouldn't be allocating our sidewalks to this, especially given the certain effect of blight," said Milo Hanke, public affairs chairman of San Francisco Beautiful, the group that appealed AT&T's most recent EIR exemption. Founded in 1947, the 300-member group works to maintain the city's history and environment. It claims that about a dozen neighborhood associations, as well as other groups in the city, support its appeal.

The cabinets are out of scale for dense San Francisco neighborhoods, block pedestrian traffic and are magnets for graffiti, Hanke said. Rather than put them on sidewalks, AT&T should install the boxes underground or on rented private property, he said. "We know that putting this stuff on the sidewalk is the cheapest way of doing business," Hanke said.

AT&T says underground installation would be even uglier because it would require 20-square-foot underground vaults with air-conditioning vents, an extra electrical meter and entry hatches for maintenance workers. When the carrier asked property owners if they would host the cabinets, it was turned down, Blakeman said.

Like almost everything else in digital technology, the U-Verse infrastructure has improved over the past three years. What used to be a separate cabinet for an electrical meter is now integrated into the main cabinet. In addition, the new boxes can be set up a longer distance from AT&T's existing copper infrastructure. That means the carrier will be able to keep its cabinets out of historic districts, conservation districts and historic landmarks throughout the city, Blakeman said.

San Francisco Beautiful dismissed AT&T's claims of progress and greater engagement with communities. The areas that will be kept free of U-Verse boxes make up only about 2 percent of the city's land area, Hanke said. In addition, activists who have attended AT&T's neighborhood meetings said they did little to address environmental issues and follow-up questions were discouraged. "What we've had for three years is a nonstop infomercial," Hanke said.

"What we don't have at this time is transparent, credible information from objective sources," Hanke said. "The city so far has relied solely on what one telecommunications firm has presented."

U-Verse is important for San Francisco because it would give residents another choice for TV, voice and high-speed Internet, AT&T said. Currently, Comcast holds the franchise for cable TV across the whole city. Hanke said it's doubtful that competition would lower rates but said San Francisco Beautiful doesn't favor one service provider or technology over another. "We just want to end this information vacuum," he said.

If the Board of Supervisors lets AT&T's exemption stand, the company would still have to go through a community notification and comment period and possible appeals on each cabinet installation. AT&T estimates it would take about three years to roll out U-Verse throughout the city.

Given San Francisco's dueling personalities, the hearing is likely to bring out strong feelings on both sides.

"We're going to vigorously defend our position, and I believe you'll see that we'll have a lot of supporters," Blakeman said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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