AT&T has learned its lesson. In 2008, the telecom giant chose San Francisco to be the first city in the nation to experience its “U-verse” “internet protocol television,” a cable-Internet-phone alternative to much-loathed carrier Comcast. Sounds fine, until one considers that San Francisco would also have to experience 725 six-foot-tall utility cabinets, installed on sidewalks or in other public rights-of-way. Neighborhood activists — perhaps irked that AT&T did little-to-no public outreach blocked the telecom giant’s moves to install the infrastructure necessary for an additional cable-carrier, forcing AT&T back to the drawing board (and to install the utility cabinets everywhere else in the US, including 4,000 cabinets in Chicago, where nobody made a formal protest).

Now a wiser and more strategic AT&T is trying again. Last week the city Planning Department gave AT&T “categorical exemption” from environmental review (“basically a green-light to ‘play ball’ with the city, as AT&T spokesman Lane Kasselman put it), and if all goes as planned, work crews could begin installing the cabinets (now smaller, about four feet tall by four feet across by two feet deep. ) — for the service now called “Lightspeed” — in neighborhoods ranging from Ocean Beach to the Excelsior as soon as April, according to Marc Blakeman, AT&T’s regional vice president of external affairs and frontman on the project.

Meanwhile, the company is conducting a community relations blitz, meeting with some 80-odd neighborhood, merchants and community organizations to massage egos and assuage doubts, Blakeman said.

There are San Franciscans who are wholly supportive of the efforts of AT&T, who already has about 1,000 utility cabinets scattered throughout the city. “There’s no reason to be against additional service — right now, Comcast has a monopoly,” said Dianne Drosnes, president of the La Playa Homeowners Association, a group of condos near the Fulton Avenue Safeway in the Outer Richmond so utility poor that they had to rely on dial-up for Internet until 2005.

What’s more, this is a long time coming, she added. “Countries like Brazil have more options for broadband than some San Franciscans.” Speaking on background, an aide for a city supervisor told the Appeal of “widespread” support for the project in another west side neighborhood.

That’s great for AT&T and for choice-starved Internet customers. What’s not so great is that a fight is promised and already in the works.

“There will be an appeal,” promised Milo Hanke, a board member with San Francisco Beautiful, a preservation group that helped box-block AT&T in 2008.

“We’re working the phones,” added Hanke, meaning they’re getting City Hall on this. “We’re not going to acquiesce to the taking of our sidewalks to benefit a private corporation.”

What’s more, according to folks like Hanke and David Crommie, the former president of the Cole Valley Improvement Association who spearheaded the 2008 box-block, AT&T could easily place these boxes either underground or on private property.

“They’re just unwilling to consider alternate placement,” said Crommie, who added that the copper wire-dependent technology will “soon be outmoded.”

Not so, Blakeman says. To put the boxes underground would require, as per OHSA worker safety rules, a host of other additional even-bulkier infrastructure to accommodate folks going under the sidewalk to work.

The technology is as new as can be, he says, and indeed represents both a significant capital investment by AT&T and a forward-thinking gamble that will only pay off if AT&T can steal a significant chunk of the cable market away from Astound and Comcast.

And to put the boxes on private property would lead to scenarios like the one encountered in Chicago, when AT&T had to break into a home – with assistance from Chicago police – to service a faulty box.

“We’re embarking on the largest deployment of IP TV (internet protocol television) in the world,” Blakeman said. “There are misconceptions that this can be delivered differently.”

See you at public comment.

Photo of the AT&T utility cabinet: AT&T

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