WI: Video franchising a front-yard issue

Posted on May 28, 2007 - 3:54pm.

from: Post Crescent

Video franchising a front-yard issue
Grand Chute leader wary of AT&T's roadside cabinets

By Ed Lowe
Post-Crescent staff writer
Posted May 27, 2007

GRAND CHUTE — Town Administrator Mark Rohloff concedes the state battle over the so-called video competition act won’t be decided by concerns about neighborhood aesthetics.

Still, he can’t see past the spread of those “obnoxious” circuitry cabinets he envisions at the edge of somebody’s yard.

AT&T’s boxes are a visible sign of a network upgrade that allows the company to offer video services that compete with cable TV.

“I can guarantee you that when they start putting these boxes in residential areas, people will call, and they will expect that their local government can do something about it,” Rohloff said Friday.

He would like to think it could.

“They send out letters saying we’re going to be in your neighborhood to improve service and competition,” he said, referring to AT&T Wisconsin, the loudest advocate of legislation to establish competition in markets long dominated by cable firms. “Then one day they’re going to plant one of these double-wide boxes on their front lawn.”

The cabinets will never sprout on private property, not technically, however.

“It’s on the (public right of way) terrace, yes, but if you ask someone where their front lawn ends, they’ll tell you it ends at the curb,” Rohloff said.

Jeff Bentoff, a spokesman for AT&T Wisconsin, said Friday the company will do all it can to honor issues of neighborhood integrity. He noted that complaints about cabinet sitings are “very rare compared to the number of cabinets we install.”

Perception helps frame the legislative debate that has so far sided with the bill backed by AT&T Wisconsin.

The bill passed the Assembly 66-28 on April 9, and has the look of a winner nearing the political homestretch.

Matt Canter, a spokesman for Gov. Jim Doyle, said the governor originally “had concerns about whether consumers were adequately protected under previous versions of the bill,” but now appears satisfied.

“From what we’ve seen, we believe those concerns have been addressed,” Canter said. “The governor supports the intent — competition — if it’s going to deliver lower prices for consumers.”

Meanwhile, officials in Grand Chute are sizing up the AT&T presence near the corner Meade Street and Florida Avenue in Appleton.

The new beige cabinet stands 5 feet, 3 inches on a concrete foundation 7½ feet wide and a bit more than 5½ feet deep on the public terrace adjacent to a church.

The standing units occupy a space 4½ feet wide, with a brightly adorned pole planted about five feet away. Two other poles and a smaller foundation reside across the street, on the terrace adjacent to a homeowner’s yard.

“I really think this is an overlooked issue,” Rohloff said. “I’ve heard that we don’t have the authority to say this is not the right location in terms of neighborhood character and the aesthetics.”

Rohloff makes the point amid the din of rhetoric about competition, of nature consumer rights, the inalienable right to get decently priced cable TV.

Bentoff says AT&T is sensitive to public concerns.

“Over the history of AT&T in Wisconsin, more than 120 years, we have obtained the permits and worked with the communities to make sure (installations) are in the proper places,” he said.

“We’ll make every attempt to make the location as acceptable as possible to anyone in the area,” Bentoff said. “We work very closely with communities and seek to find the best possible locations.”

The cabinets are the byproduct of an upgrade to the company’s existing copper-cable networks, Bentoff said, a conversion of copper lines to fiber-optic status. The company will not disclose the number of cabinets existing or projected “for competitive reasons,” he said.

The cabinet complaint is news to state Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, who said Thursday he thought the video competition bill would pass or fail based on more tangible arguments.

“If this bill reduces the amount of money coming out of the pocket of the local consumer, then that is the determinant,” Ellis said. “What I care about is whether the consumer has a greater competitive variety to choose from, and with the same protections we currently afford to them.”

Rohloff suggested that view is understandable, given the financial stakes involved. He noted Grand Chute collects $180,000 in annual franchise fees from Time Warner Cable, funds he said the town will likely learn to do without.

“It sounds like the state claims that it’s going to make us whole,” for the lost revenue, Rohloff said. “But my history with the state is they will backfill for a year or two, then take it away a few years down the road.”

Afterward, Rohloff said, “We’re still going to have these obnoxious boxes in people’s front yards.”

On the public right of way, actually.

Ed Lowe can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 293, or elowe@postcrescent.com.

( categories: AT&T | State Franchises | WISCONSIN )