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AT&T: You Want to Put That Box Where?

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Ready for another NIMBY battle? Let's go! This time, it's over broadband. San Francisco's obstinacy over the AT&T Lightspeed Network Upgrade has put it dead last nationwide in major cities having access to the company's U-Verse package of telephone, HDTV and high-speed internet products. For this network upgrade AT&T wants to use something called FTTN, an acronym for Fiber To The Node, which may sound like a dietary supplement but actually involves fiber optic cable bringing data to a location (sidewalk boxes) and then redistributing it via traditional copper wire to customer's homes. Unlike Comcast, which brings the cable directly to the customer via existing utility poles or underground. Some neighborhoods, like the far-west Sunset and Richmond, have to use Comcast for internet access because their only other choice, apparently, is dial-up. Which is sort of shocking. On the other side is SF Beautiful, leading the charge against the massive boxes that AT&T wants to install to provide the service to most of the city. [Full Disclosure: like any other online business, Curbed.Inc has a vital interest in everyone having fabulous broadband access.]

AT&T first brought Lightspeed around in 2005. They received an exemption from the usually-required environmental review in 2008, but withdrew when local objections started to heat up. They came back last year with smaller boxes and in February, 2011 received a second exemption from the Planning Commission. The 726 new boxes are 48 inches high, 26 inches deep, and 52 inches wide. They will be located near or next to AT&T's 900 existing boxes, of which an unknown number will be replaced (they call it "reskinned") with new boxes 65 inches high. AT&T's been clumsy. Either they calculated that Comcast is so universally loathed that the new boxes would be welcomed with open arms, or they thought no one would notice a second CEQA exemption. There are San Franciscans who live and breathe CEQA exemptions. Not even the America's Cup will get to put on a show without one. And more than clumsy, flat-out misrepresentation- From their blog dedicated to the infrastructure upgrade:

Our application to bring a 21st century Internet Protocol network and millions of dollars in investment to the City has been appealed to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It all comes down to a hearing at City Hall on April 26th.When in fact it's only the exemption that's being appealed. AT&T won't release the locations of the boxes, saying that the information is "proprietary and only proposed" but in 2008 they provided locations to the Cole Valley Improvement Association- a list of non-existent addresses- plausible and close enough to existing boxes that we took a few snapshots. AT&T has installed one box at Cabrillo and La Playa Streets. It hasn't been hooked up to anything, it's just tucked behind a hedge in some shrubs next to the La Playa apartment complex in the Cabrillo Mall, an open space/view corridor which is maintained by the La Playa HOA. You can see the chunky new poster boy and its taller "re-skinned" cousin in the first two pics in the gallery. Are these boxes such a big deal? Probably not, in the larger scale of urban life, and they won't upset the tourists. Will a technology that uses copper wire and existing home wiring bring 21st Century broadband to digitally-deprived? Maybe, plus it's expedient. But the exemption leaves unanswered three critical issues. While it notes that AT&T will work to locate the boxes out of the way, as possible, and that they will screen them with shrubs and lattices, how does the camouflage fit into a sidewalk greening program? Do they sidestep the flaming hoops at Urban Forestry that everyone else jumps through? As for that toothbrush, the boxes will have fans to cool their delicate equipment, fans which AT&T claims will be no louder than an electric toothbrush. SF Beautiful (and just about everyone else) worries that the boxes will become stealth billboards or graffiti magnets. While the exemption claims that there will be an AT&T graffiti hotline, that implies they're exempt from the fines that home and building owners have to pay when they get tagged.

Meanwhile, the charm offensive continues with mailings and emails. Last week, C.W. Nevius came out in favor of Lightspeed in the Chronicle, and quoted Supervisor Sean Elsbernd as a supporter- a somewhat tepid supporter, but one nonetheless. In February, according to City Report, the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center received contributions of $5,000 each from AT&T and others at Elsbernd's annual fundraiser. No word on whether SF Beautiful is getting free camellias from Comcast.
· Our Plan [AT&T]
· Act Now to Halt Utility Blight (.pdf) [SF Beautiful]
· Exemption From Environmental Review (.pdf) [SF Beautiful]
· Help Keep SF Beautiful [Cole Valley Improvement Association]
· Sidewalk Greening [Friends of Urban Forests]
· Rethink Possible [AT&T]
· Is HDTV competition worth 4-foot U-verse boxes? [Nevius/SF Gate]
· Elsbernd Taps Lobbyists [City Report]