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Lodi residents may lose yard space to AT&T cabinets: Boxes contain equipment for phone, Internet and video services
[June 03, 2006]

Lodi residents may lose yard space to AT&T cabinets: Boxes contain equipment for phone, Internet and video services

(Record, The (Stockton, CA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Jun. 3--LODI -- Julie and Sean Whiteley have a nickname for the hulking gray box in the front yard of their Grand Fir Drive home. But it's not an affectionate one.

"We call it 'the refrigerator,' " Julie Whiteley said. "We were just talking about if we were going to hide it with landscaping."

The metal box, which contains telephone equipment owned by AT&T, is one of many utility structures sprouting from residents' yards, containing everything from electric transformers to cable TV connections. These are the alternatives to overhead utility lines.

Residents whose yards already have large telephone company boxes, however, may find their green space shrinking more as a result of AT&T's Project Lightspeed. The $4.4 billion upgrade is intended to bring even more services through home phone lines, such as higher-speed Internet services and interactive video.

AT&T has already approached Lodi about installing 10 boxes near apartment buildings, the start of its Project Lightspeed work in Lodi. The boxes AT&T proposes would be 5 feet 3 inches tall, 431/2 inches deep and nearly 21 inches wide and be placed in the public utility easement, typically 10 feet in from the sidewalk.

"I don't get that," Sean Whiteley said. "It's got to be a more compact design than that."

Lodi officials aren't happy about those dimensions, either.

"Aesthetics is a big part of it," said Wally Sandelin, the city engineer. "The first thing we asked them was, 'Can't you do it in a smaller box?' And the answer was no."

AT&T spokesman Gordon Diamond said the company attempts to satisfy local officials' concerns about the boxes' location and looks. He said Lodi already has larger electric utility boxes in residential areas and that putting the cabinets underground would be cost-prohibitive.

Diamond said the cabinets will allow customers "21st-century technology," by giving them an alternative to cable television delivered by companies such as Comcast.

"Under state law, because we have a statewide franchise already, we can upgrade our infrastructure in the public right of way," said Diamond, who added he did not know how many of the large cabinets are planned for Lodi . "What it all comes down to is educating the cities on what we plan to do and how we plan to do it."

When a handful of Illinois cities balked at letting AT&T install similar boxes, the phone company sued.

"They are very intrusive," said Steve Vinezeano, assistant village manager in Niles, Ill., a Chicago suburb that last month imposed a 180-day moratorium on box installations. "From the looks of it, they don't really make any effort to cover them up. I've seen more substantial wireless equipment stored in vaults underground. We're trying to protect ourselves from the eyesores."

They're not just eyesores, according to Stuart Chapman, an Illinois telecommunications consultant whose firm has clients in 10 states, including California. Because they're installed near streets, the boxes -- which he calls "an aesthetics nightmare" -- could block motorists' view of potential hazards.

"They'll say they have the right to upgrade their network," Chapman said, "but is upgrading with something that big reasonable? Are these boxes a reasonable way of enabling competition?"

Although Diamond said he did not have the number of boxes AT&T has planned for Lodi, Chapman said each one is able to serve about 300 homes. With roughly 23,000 separate addresses, several dozen would be required throughout Lodi.

AT&T already has filed a lawsuit against Lodi over the city's attempt to collect a franchise fee for any video services the phone company provides in the future. The state Assembly on Wednesday sided with AT&T by a 70-0 vote, passing a bill that would allow the telecommunications company to obtain a state franchise for video rather than negotiating agreements with each city.

"That takes away our ability to regulate," Lodi City Attorney Steve Schwabauer said. "The city's position is we have the right to do that. We're going to see that they obtain additional right of way and install decorative screening to make these more attractive."

Contact Lodi Bureau Chief Jeff Hood at (209) 367-7427 or [email protected]

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