Utility-box plan hits a snag

Proponents call it 21st-century technology. Opponents call it 19th-century packaging.

Whatever you call it, it won’t be showing up on your street corner in the form of a refrigerator-size metal box — not yet, at least.

Telecom giant AT&T withdrew its application to place 850 large utility boxes housing fiber-optic technology on sidewalks across The City, a move made after it became clear that a hearing at the Board of Supervisors was not going the company’s way.

The boxes were to have housed technology for the company’s Project Lightspeed, which would bring cable television, broadband Internet and phone service to residents via fiber-optic cables.

Though the idea of rallying some competition with Comcast — the largest cable provider in The City — has proven popular, the boxes have not.

Neighborhood groups whose residents have paid big bucks to force utilities underground on their streets argue that the large boxes would be ugly, hazardous graffiti magnets.

“We have nothing against the new technology,” David Crony, president of the Cole Valley Improvement Association, told supervisors. “But supervisors, this beautiful city and all our plans for improving its streets will be seriously threatened if we sanction the installation of up to 850 of these enormous, industrial-grade boxes on our sidewalks.”

The project has many friends, however, particularly those who are eager to see Comcast face some competition in The City. Others hope the project will help break down the “digital divide,” bringing more high-speed technology to inner-city neighborhoods that have historically lagged behind.

At issue in Tuesday’s meeting was whether AT&T could move ahead with the boxes without an environmental review process. The City’s Planning Department had granted the company a “categorical exemption” from the environmental review process — a decision consistent with recent state legislation that allows telecom companies broad access to public rights of way, AT&T representatives said.

But neighborhood associations appealed the Planning Department’s decision, and that appeal went before the supervisors Tuesday.

After hours of testimony, in which a majority of supervisors said they were inclined to uphold the appeal, AT&T attorney Jennifer Hernandez withdrew the company’s application for the categorical exemption. She said the company wanted the chance to “beef up” the application to “expand and clarify” the explanations of their compliance with city code.

kworth@sfexaminer.com

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