Bulky trouble by the Bay

Few cities in the world owe as much to the Internet as San Francisco does. Both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 helped to fund office construction, thousands of high-paying jobs, and soaring home prices in the city and across the whole Bay Area. The 'Net also owes a lot to San Francisco, the birthplace of Craigslist, Twitter, Blogger.com and countless other startups.

But the city is also a hotbed of activism against big corporations and in favor of cycling, walking and more livable neighborhoods, among other things. So the cozy relationship between San Francisco and the Internet sometimes turns as cool as the city's foggy summer days. In 2007, residents' objections helped to kill a plan for free citywide Wi-Fi supported by EarthLink and Google. Privacy and franchise fees were among the hot-button issues.

Last year, when AT&T tried to extend its high-speed U-Verse service to the city, the roll-out plan was too much for many residents to swallow. More specifically, the activists say, the U-Verse infrastructure is too much for San Francisco's sidewalks to swallow.

With U-Verse, AT&T can deliver faster Internet access as well as high-definition television by bringing optical fiber closer to its customers' homes. That would mean data at speeds up to 18Mb per second and more than 80 channels of TV, an alternative to Comcast, the local cable franchisee.

To do this, AT&T is taking a different approach from that of Verizon, the other big U.S. carrier. Verizon is running fiber all the way into homes, even in older neighborhoods. AT&T is going all-fiber with new construction, but in areas that are already built out the company says it can roll out the new service faster by bringing fiber to a local "node" and relying on existing copper wires to reach the homes.

That requires a box 48 inches high, 50 inches wide and 26 inches deep in each neighborhood to link up the fiber and copper and send the signals on to homes. In many locations, this box also needs another large piece of equipment to help power the service. AT&T has said it may need as many as 850 of these facilities to cover the city.

Those boxes may be fine in the suburbs, with wide sidewalks that go mostly unused, but in San Francisco, they would be hazards and eyesores, said Susan Maerki of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors Association. She says the narrow sidewalks in her neighborhood, a residential and commercial area near Golden Gate Park, are already crowded with pedestrians, and the large boxes would block drivers' views at busy intersections. Like AT&T's current utility boxes, they will also be magnets for graffiti and trash, according to critics. The boxes could even provide a hiding place for muggers, some say.

One set of boxes that has already been installed, in a relatively spacious part of the city, left room to walk by on the sidewalk. But a fan in one box made a low buzzing sound, and graffiti artists had already stopped by.

Neighbors have lodged protests with the city against more than half of the cabinet sites AT&T has identified so far, according to Maerki. In some cases, such as a site near the famed crooked section of Lombard Street, multiple protests were made, she said.

When AT&T asked the city's Planning Department for permission to put up the boxes, it was exempted from getting an environmental impact report on their effects. But the Cole Valley Improvement Association (CVIA), which represents a tony neighborhood near the psychedelic Haight-Ashbury district, appealed the department's decision. At a meeting of the city's ruling Board of Supervisors last July, where there were long line of voters speaking both for and against the plan, AT&T withdrew its proposal.

The carrier is working with the city on a revised plan and has no timetable for when it will submit that, AT&T spokesman Gordon Diamond said.

"We're eager to bring new choice to San Francisco and we're working as quickly as we can," Diamond said.

Complaints about the AT&T boxes are nothing new. (Nor are gripes about Verizon's fiber rollouts, which require the carrier to dig up some customers' yards.) Communities across the country have tried to halt or modify the installations. But given San Francisco's reputation as a high-tech mecca, the local fight creates some ironies. For example, one of the more contentious proposed cabinet sites is at a busy corner less than a block from the home of Craigslist, the popular Website that has shifted much of the world's classified advertising onto the Internet.

Opponents say they support the technology, just not the boxes. In fact, they suspect that with the fast pace of innovation, those boxes will be obsolete in a few years anyway.

"It's 21st century technology, but it's delivered in 19th century packaging," said CVIA President David Crommie, who said that even 19th century cabinets might prove more aesthetically appealing than the drab hulks AT&T wants to build. And if the boxes are needed, there must be places to put them other than the sidewalks, he said.

Not surprisingly, U-Verse has its backers. At the Board of Supervisors meeting, one IT professional said no one complains about building hospital emergency rooms in the city. "You make room for things that are important," he said.

A local pastor echoed the earlier fight.

"We went through this with Wi-Fi, and now we're back again with something else that will bring improvements," he told the Board. "We still have people who are not even wired yet because we didn't do the free Wi-Fi. ... The digital divide is wide enough as it is."

AT&T says it has no alternative to putting the boxes on sidewalks. Going underground would require a controlled environment for the boxes and an excavation as big as 20 feet by 10 feet to provide room for maintenance workers, Diamond said. AT&T asked people near proposed sites if they would rent out private property for them, and got no takers, according to the city. The carrier still believes it qualifies for the Planning Department exemption, but if challenges meant that it couldn't install a box in a particular area, those residents wouldn't be able to get U-Verse, Diamond said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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