Cable choice creates eyesore

AT&T cabinet in front of Fairmount Blvd. residence.

Look around and you’ll see them sprouting up on area tree lawns. Unlike the odd mushroom though, these are pretty obvious. They are about the size of a refrigerator and actually sound like one, purring quietly. But don’t expect the city to pick them up on garbage day.

Until last year, cities negotiated cable franchise agreements directly with providers. In exchange for service, cable companies provided community access channels, offered senior rates and addressed customer complaints. Time Warner Cable exclusively serviced Cleveland Heights and University Heights. Last year, Governor Strickland signed Senate Bill 117, which deregulated the cable TV industry in Ohio and enabled cable providers to obtain a single, statewide franchise. Both Time Warner and AT&T are now able to provide service throughout Ohio, including the Heights.

Which brings us back to the refrigerators on our tree lawns: They are “node cabinets” for AT&T’s U-verse (SM) product, which combines telephone, television, and internet services. AT&T’s fiber-optics and the copper phone line from your house meet up in the node cabinet. Each cabinet can service 200 to 300 homes.

On its face, more choice seems a good thing for consumers. But parking large cabinets in front of homes seems like a spoiler. It turns out that tree lawns are actually a right-of-way, and utilities have the right to use them.

Carl Czaga, manager of capital projects for the city of Cleveland Heights, says the city has been able to influence the locations of some boxes, but has limited authority. “We can’t flat out deny their installing a cabinet,” said Czaga. “We have been successful in tweaking locations in some cases, making suggestions about visibility, and they have been cooperative with us.” Czaga reports that AT&T has in some instances secured easements from property owners, enabling them to place their cabinets on private property and off the right-of-way. Although Czaga says Cleveland Heights’ right-of way ordinance regulates cabinet placement, a perusal of the ordinance did not reveal any provisions regulating their visual impact.

“They are ugly monsters upon the landscape,” says University Heights Mayor Beryl Rothschild. “I insisted on looking at where they wanted to put them and making suggestions. These are big utilities with a lot of clout. They don’t care unless you challenge them.”

Traffic control boxes are located on rights-of-way at intersections. They are smaller, painted gray or black, and blend into the background. AT&T’s tan cabinets, with neon-orange street designations, do not blend in. AT&T spokesman Bob Beasley, says that the cabinets “are designed to blend in to local aesthetics and meet local ordinances.” Clearly, aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder.

Czaga indicated that city officials had asked AT&T to paint the cabinets black for aesthetic reasons. AT&T refused to do so, citing concerns over heat absorption. Cleveland Heights requires plantings be installed to visually shield the cabinets. The installation and maintenance of the plantings is AT&T’s responsibility.

While AT&T has made some accommodations, their unwillingness to alter their corporate formula results in a loss for the community. Walking down the street and seeing one of their cabinets would not likely inspire an individual to think “what a fine service they provide us!”

At a recent city council meeting, Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley summed up his thoughts: "I'm really appalled by what they are trying to do. They have no respect for their customers...It's time for them to step up and be more neighborly."

Hugh Fisher is a Cedar-Fairmount resident.

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Volume 1, Issue 3, Posted 9:03 PM, 05.21.2008