Thursday, July 3, 2008

Invasion of the Big Boxes (on Utility Poles)

Many readers will have noticed the big boxes that are now suspended from utility poles around town. They are tan and grey colored and have internal fans constantly running to cool the electrical devices inside. Usually they are located about two or three feet off the ground, and often are suspended over or close to the sidewalk. And they make a great canvas for local graffiti "tags".

These boxes are being installed across Connecticut by AT&T, to provide the next generation of internet "connectivity", referred to as "U-verse". Recently the boxes, called V-RAD or VRAD, have been getting some scrutiny by state officials, including State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. A ruling in late May 2008 concluded that AT&T must get prior approval from landlords of abutting properties before installation. More recently, officials are concerned that AT&T has not allowed for sufficient local review before installing the equipment. Not surprisingly, shoreline towns have been particularly active in questioning the installations, since the boxes are not exactly attractive and may pose safety hazards for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers. But the shoreline folks are not alone. To their credit, the people of Wethersfield have also raised concerns about the devices, according to this recent story in the Hartford Courant business section. According to Courant reporter Lynn Doan, Wethersfield Town Manager Bonnie Therrien thinks the boxes are an eyesore; they "make the town look awful," she says.

I concur. But I would add that, in general, I consider utility poles an eyesore -- and they make for the frequent "trimming" of nearby street trees, creating an even more barren streetscape. To make matters worse, CL&P occasionally shows up to add new high voltage equipment to the tops of the poles. A few years ago, a formidable array of equipment was added to the pole in front of our house, and it does not make for a pretty picture.

Given the historic quality of the downtown and its environs, you'd think city officials would have pushed long ago for the "undergrounding" of the overhead lines. This would not solve the V-RAD problem however, since it would appear that these devices need to be above-ground (I'm not an engineer, so I'm happy to be corrected on this point).

In the end, the issue would seem to be who, or what, controls the public space between the street and the private home, office, or place of business. No doubt there is a good article out there on this topic, but it would appear that the beginning of the erosion of municipal and private control began when state and city governments began granting special rights to the utility companies -- especially electric and telephone companies. The question then becomes, should this new degree of telephone and computer connectivity be considered a public utility, which is to say, a public good? Or is it simply a luxury? And where do cities and communities draw the line? Or are they even able to? And if not, what level of government gets final say? The involvement of the state attorney general suggests that it is an issue that can only be resolved at the state level.

We now have great "connectivity", but at what cost? We can download huge amounts of information onto our computers and communicate instantaneously with people around the world, but every new bit of flashy technology that is delivered to our homes seems to blind us just a little bit more to the incremental deterioration of the communities and landscapes outside our doors.

Photographs by Pearse Pinch

1 comment:

Middletown Eye said...

Really interesting. Like most utility "things" most of us walk by these boxes without notice, but they are hazards, and it would be great to know exactly what's inside, and how hazardous it might be if struck by a car, for example.