Some San Franciscans are sick of their sidewalks being cluttered with utility boxes. A group led by non-profit San Francisco Beautiful filed a lawsuit against AT&T to prevent the carrier from placing 726 of its video-ready-access-device (VRAD) boxes on public sidewalks. The plaintiffs have asked a court to prevent the installations until an environmental-impact study is performed.

In a court document dated Sept. 21, AT&T states: "AT&T proposes to upgrade its communications network in San Francisco to enable it to provide new services, including ‘U-verse’ wireline video services…a stay effectively would block sorely needed local jobs as well as local competition for cable television services that would save consumers tens of millions of dollars each year."

Comcast is the dominant provider of wireline video services in San Francisco, and consumers also can subscribe to satellite services.

AT&T’s network upgrade, referred to as "Lightspeed," involves placing additional fiber-optic facilities and related equipment in the public rights-of-way. The new equipment includes as many as 726 tan or light green metal cabinets, each measuring 52 inches wide by 26 inches deep by 48 inches high. Each cabinet occupies about nine square feet.

The groups opposing AT&T want the company to pursue other options for its technology, like underground vaults or placement on private property.

Milo Hanke, past president of San Francisco Beautiful and its spokesman for the lawsuit, contends, "We don’t care how clunky it is; just get it off our sidewalks." He adds that, a few years ago, Comcast conducted a major upgrade in the city and put a lot of its utility boxes on private property.

Bob Newkirk, national sales manager of enclosures and green solutions at Powerwave Technologies, a company that makes subterranean environmental vaults, notes, "Landline, cable and electric companies have been putting equipment underground (when required to do so) for a long time. Wireless as well as other communications providers are starting to do the same undergrounding of equipment as an alternative to cabinets or shelters – again, when required to do so."

To cut down on the potential obstacle course of cabinets on the street, another option is cabinets on commercial roofs. "All the wireless carriers put their stuff up there," says Newkirk.

As for the lawsuit requesting an environmental-impact study, Hanke says, "Our city has held itself dependent on the representations of AT&T and not scrutinized their claims that there is no other way than these big ugly boxes."

The VRAD boxes contain equipment to connect fiber to existing copper wire. One solution, albeit expensive, would be to run fiber all the way to the home, similar to Verizon FiOS in New York City.

-Linda Hardesty

The Daily

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