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WI: Mayor: Beware of big metal boxes

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Created 07/18/2007 - 8:29am

from: Wisconsin State Journal [1]

Mayor: Beware of big metal boxes

July 16, 2007

On a grassy terrace on West Lawn Avenue Monday was a vision of the future Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and state Rep. Spencer Black, D-Madison, hope to avoid.

The metallic gray refrigerator-size box at Monday's news conference was a replica of the 60-by-42-by-20-inch metal boxes AT&T would install to bring its video services to the area.

"These can be graffiti magnets throughout the city," said Cieslewicz, who held a news conference with Black. "They're ugly enough as they are."

More than 300 of the refrigerator-size utility cabinets could be headed for Madison's public rights-of-way -- including terraces and backyards -- if the state Legislature passes a controversial cable television deregulation bill.

Under the bill, video providers -- primarily cable companies -- would apply for a statewide franchise, allowing them to operate anywhere within the state. Current law requires cable providers to sign franchise agreements on a local level, in which they agree to provide service to an entire city, paying a franchise fee for using the public right of way. Most municipalities now have just one cable provider, but under federal law, the contracts can't be exclusive. Still, there is very little cable competition in the state, said Barry Orton, a professor of telecommunications at UW-Madison.

The bill, introduced earlier this year, has received extensive lobbying support from AT&T. Supporters of the bill say the changes will increase competition and drive prices down. Opponents have said local governments stand to lose a percentage of the revenue from franchise fees and their right to protect their cities from detrimental mergers.

As for the boxes, if the bill passes, Cieslewicz said there would be little local governments could do to influence their placement, beyond "tweaks" to prevent interrupting drivers' sightlines. Currently, city engineers review plans on a case-by-case basis before issuing permits, taking into consideration aesthetic and safety concerns, said Brad Clark, the city's cable TV coordinator.

AT&T Wisconsin spokesman Jeffrey Bentoff said the bill doesn't change that. The company would still have to work within city regulations in placing its boxes.

While that's true, said Orton, who consults with cities on these issues, there's no way to know what would happen with the boxes if the bill passes.

"It's true that the bill doesn't specifically mention either boxes or the placement of boxes, but it reduces the power of cities over companies that offer video and cable," Orton said. "These boxes are symbolic of what's going on with the bill."

AT&T installs the boxes to use the copper lines in neighborhoods. Fiber optic lines are run to the boxes, where the information is converted for houses' copper lines. That avoids the need to tear up lawns where cables are buried, Bentoff said.

"This is no different than what we're doing in the Milwaukee area, the Racine area, the Indianapolis area," Bentoff said. "Whatever city we're in, we're using this infrastructure."

Madison isn't alone in its concern, Orton said.

A handful of cities in Illinois have taken steps to prevent the boxes' installation by issuing moratoriums on their construction, Orton said. Milwaukee has sued AT&T, and under an interim agreement, local aldermen have the right to review plans for boxes in his or her district, he said.

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