Readers: This is part of an ongoing series of updates on what happened to the AT&T U-verse rollout in Orange County. The company said in July 2009 that it was halting further expansion in seven O.C. cities. I’m talking to each city so keep checking back for updates! This story, in particular, is the long promised update on why AT&T can’t build its U-verse TV technology underground, as every city prefers.
When AT&T said it would stop pursuing expansion of its highly anticipated U-verse TV and Internet service in seven Orange County cities (Cypress, Dana Point, Irvine, Lake Forest, Newport Beach, San Clemente and Tustin), readers blamed the cities. Why would a city not want to offer residents another TV option?
Most of the cities responded, saying, no, they haven’t rejected AT&T U-verse. Rather, they’re waiting for their laundry list of requirements to be fulfilled or at least answers to their multiple questions. Cities want AT&T to build the large U-verse utility boxes underground. Otherwise, cities believe they’ll be deluged with ugliness complaints or spray-can wielding vandals.
AT&T tells me it has responded to all concerns among the cities. Multiple times.
“Over the past two years, we’ve met with cities repeatedly and answered the same questions on the same issues,” said an exasperated H. Gordon Diamond, with AT&T’s public affairs, after reading some of the responses from the cities.
Cities have nitpicked AT&T, some asking for the company to pre-engineer each location (which takes 50 hours a pop, says Diamond), others putting requiring a list of “standard” conditions be met. While some cities say they just care more than those cities, AT&T says this is holding up progress and keeping an alternative TV service out of reach of residents.
So, let’s look at AT&T’s response to the biggest issue: AT&T says it can’t build these utility cabinets underground.
And why not?
Diamond gave me the same explanation AT&T offers the cities via a 1-page handout. Read the document yourself: “AT&T’s undergrounding facts.” To see if they jibe with the industry, I’ve run the responses past Steve Woo, a former AT&T engineer who now works for a firm that constructs utility cabinets for AT&T, Verizon and others. Woo supports AT&T’s belief that utility boxes are best built above ground because of lower cost and easier maintenance.
Expensive. To protect electronics from moisture and extreme temperature changes, AT&T would need to invest in a special Controlled Environment Vault (CEV), which aren’t cheap.
Woo says: CEVs are $40,000 to $60,000 each, depending on size. This doesn’t include the equipment or installation.
Space. An underground structure is nine to 20 feet deep, plus additional space is needed for a technician to access it. So, not only does AT&T need to find enough room underground, the space can’t interfere with existing underground utilities like water, power or the sewer system. By comparison, an above-ground U-verse cabinet was designed to fit within the sidewalk area and within the right-of-way of other utilities.
Woo says: Underground cabinets can also be designed to fit the width of a sidewalk and minimize the impact to other underground utilities. The entrance can be placed in the parkway adjacent to the sidewalk.
Access. Electronics inside need to be accessed for maintenance or repair, sometimes immediately. Underground structures aren’t easy to access.
Woo says: Workers must climb down a ladder to get inside. When replacement batteries weigh more than 100 pounds, maintenance and upgrades can be tricky.
More on the U-verse impasse
Added expense. If AT&T were required to put U-verse cabinets underground, the company would also need build room to house backup power, lighting, gas testing, ventilation, cooling, alarms and emergency water pumping and waterproofing.
Woo says: While underground vaults are guaranteed to be waterproof, they can fail due to improper installation, leading conduits and broken sprinkler lines. However, above-ground cabinets also need protect the electronics from extreme weather conditions. Some have multiple fans, which can be noisy for residential neighbors. Above-ground cabinets require the same controls to provide cooling and ventilation, alarms and power backup systems. But as mentioned, above ground is easier to upgrade. Upgrading below-ground vaults would be cost prohibitive.
Not completely underground. An underground vault still needs at least one above-ground structure in order to access the vault.
Woo says: The above ground “hatch” which houses the air-conditioning equipment and is about 36-inches high.
AT&T has, and some cities have verified, worked to make sure the cabinets are screened or ‘beautified’ with shrubs and other greenery. It also pays the cities the same cable franchise fees as the local cable TV providers.
While the seven cities in Orange County may not be getting U-verse TV service anytime soon, the company is still expanding service in these cities: Aliso Viejo, Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Fullerton, Garden Grove, La Habra, La Palma, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Mission Viejo, Orange, Placentia, Rancho Santa Margarita, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Stanton, Villa Park, Westminster, and Yorba Linda. (I keep an updated list of U-verse cities HERE.)
“We’re in 220 communities now. We know what’s standard or not,” Diamond said.
Previous U-Verse news: