Utility cabinets are a necessary nuisance for fostering broadband competition

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecomSan Francisco last week, after months of controversy, became the latest legal battleground over placement of remote terminal (RT) cabinets on city streets. The matchup: community groups advocating city beautification versus AT&T (NYSE: T) and the city itself. The refrigerator-sized RT boxes, which house the U-verse service's VRADs (video ready access devices) as well as some of its DSLAMS (digital subscriber line access multiplexers), are a visual eyesore, the groups contend, that attract graffiti.

But even San Francisco residents admit that, while utility boxes clutter the city's streets, they're a necessary nuisance. "As much as we might wish otherwise, this reality won't change as long as people want telephone service, traffic lights, you name it. San Francisco and other cities instead need to accept the clutter for what it is--part of today's landscape--and work to make it as unobtrusive as possible," wrote John King of the San Francisco Chronicle earlier in August.

San Francisco isn't the only city facing community protest over placement of RT cabinets. Residents in Greensboro, N.C. protested in June when AT&T began installing its VRAD boxes right on their front lawns, something the service provider could do because of laws that allow utilities to install infrastructure on private property if there's an easement on said property. The thing is, most utility infrastructure placed within those easements was underground: cable, power and gas. The six-foot tall AT&T refrigerator-like cabinets were a different matter.

Verizon (NYSE: VZ) also has faced past protests over its FiOS utility cabinets and, recently, over a 20-foot-tall fiberglass pole in Brooklyn, which residents say is "out of character" for the historic neighborhood. They also contend that Verizon failed to seek permission before erecting the pole, which is part of its FiOS buildout in the area.

Utility cabinets in general are large and, in densely populated areas or on serene front lawns, can definitely be a distraction. But here's the rub: They're necessary if consumers want high-speed broadband service at competitive prices.

San Francisco residents can get also broadband now from the region's cable operator Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) over their coax-based network. DOCSIS 3.0 and similar technologies allow for very good high-speed connections in the 54 Mbps range. However, that is currently their only option, meaning Comcast enjoys a near-monopoly within the city limits.

"The reality is that Comcast has a lock on the market in San Francisco, with the exception of satellite, and this would be the first real competitor to their service," said Lane Kasselman, director of communications for AT&T's California region. He said that despite the community groups' lawsuit, that residents have been very supportive of the U-verse buildout. "One of the strongest reasons that we've had so much support is that competition issue. San Franciscans want to be able to pick."

Bringing fiber into cities gives residents not only an alternative, scalable high-speed network, but also allows for competitive pricing that benefits everyone.

Cabinets are necessary to broadband expansion and competition. So, how can telcos and residents compromise on where they go? AT&T says it works with city planners to reduce the impact of their RT boxes. In Park Ridge, Ill., residents were given up to $1500 to landscape around U-verse VRAD boxes placed on their property. In San Francisco, a city that Kasselman admits is known for its "political energy," AT&T started its community outreach and meetings with city planners more than 18 months ago. "More than 100 community groups over the course of about a year sat down with us to talk about it. Some were incredibly supportive and said, ‘here's the spot to put it, we don't mind if it's here.' Other groups said ‘You know, we're not convinced; come back and we'll talk about it then."

For the foreseeable future, increased community outreach may be the best solution to the ongoing controversy over placement of remote cabinets. Compared to other areas of the country, AT&T put a much greater emphasis on connecting with the San Francisco community, and not just city officials, as it rolled out its U-verse service. Part of that certainly was that they knew the community's opinions on their infrastructure buildout would be strong. But that level of outreach is not typical of most broadband providers. It should be, though. Providers can and should meet with residents beyond the confines of city council meetings to get their feedback on infrastructure placement and other issues related to broadband buildouts.--Sam