At least a few of San Francisco’s cable and Internet customers will have a corporate choice other than Comcast for their telecom needs — in select neighborhoods, anyway — after communications giant AT&T’s plan to install 495 utility cabinets on city streets was approved Tuesday following years of debate and discussion.
Construction on the first box — on La Playa in the Outer Richmond near the Fulton Street Safeway — will begin Wednesday, according to Marc Blakeman, AT&T’s vice president of external affairs.
AT&T had since 2006 sought to build utility cabinets on public rights of way, infrastructure necessary to offer bundled Internet/cable TV/phone service to San Francisco customers. The company received an OK in 2008 only to see a group of San Francisco neighbors, led by preservation group San Francisco Beautiful, file appeals to halt the process, arguing that a full environmental report was required.
After building the Lightspeed boxes in other cities in the US and California, AT&T returned this spring to try again in San Francisco. The company filed construction permits with the Department of Public Works and received an OK from the Planning Department that no full environmental report was needed. That decision was appealed again. A decision at the Board was delayed for months before the Board of Supervisors finally voted 6-5 Tuesday to uphold the Planning Department’s OK and allow AT&T to begin building the utility cabinets.
On Tuesday morning, AT&T delivered to the Department of Public Works a detailed agreement sheet in which the telecom giant agreed to give neighborhoods advance notice of a cabinet installation, “look” for a non-sidewalk site such as an alleyway before building in the public right-of-way, move a cabinet or halt the installation if a neighborhood group or supervisor objects, pay $25,000 a year for graffiti removal, and hire 33 percent of workers on the project from within city limits.
Following this list of promises, progressive Supervisor David Campos provided the swing vote Tuesday, delivering the sixth vote to approve AT&T’s plan with moderates Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Carmen Chu and Sean Elsbernd after a move to delay the vote until December by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi failed.
“You have to call it as you see it,” said Campos, who noted that he saw “no basis” to overturn the Planning Department’s decision to exempt AT&T’s project from California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.
Added Comcast subscriber Campos, “I haven’t really received any objections [to AT&T's proposal]… and it’s good to have competition.”
Milo Hanke, past president of opposition group San Francisco Beautiful, said that the agreement violates a 2005 order written by then-DPW head Ed Lee to put utilities underground wherever possible, but that it’s “too early” to say what, if anything, will be done in opposition.
“The supervisors fell victim to AT&T’s bluster,” said Hanke, who said that most of the concessions offered by AT&T are already required by city law. “This benefits a private company at the public’s expense.”
While a courtroom challenge had been suggested in the past, filing a lawsuit “has not been discussed” by opponents, he said.
Each cabinet will serve up to 400 households in the immediate vicinity, Blakeman said. Once a cabinet’s location is approved and construction begins, AT&T service will be offered “within six months,” he said.
AT&T received approval Tuesday to install 726 utility cabinets, but pledged to build only 495 at first. Once that threshold is reached, the company will revisit the Board of Supervisors to ask for further permission — even though none is technically needed, and the letter written by AT&T outlining its promises “is not binding,” according to the DPW’s Frank W. Lee.