More than 60 residents turned out on Sept. 25 at a meeting at the Robert Crown Center on Main Street sponsored by an ad hoc citizen group “Stop the Box,” to voice their opposition to AT&T’s installation of VRAD (video-ready access device) cabinets throughout Evanston. Many residents complained that they had no notice of the installation. “I found out from a neighbor,” said one resident.
Representatives of AT&T and the City responded to questions, but, because the VRADs are legal under a state law that pre-empts home-rule authority and because the City did not initially require the boxes to be installed underground, there appeared to be little movement toward resolution.
Stop the Box organizer Dickelle Fonda posed three basic questions to AT&T: “Why do the boxes need to be so big? How soon can they be removed? Can we see the results of the environmental study, safety and health studies?”
In response, Marc Blakeman, regional vice president of external affairs for AT&T, said the $8 million project uses advanced technologies based on the existing infrastructure. Thus a VRAD must be installed near an existing AT&T box, he said. In addition, because the technology used for the enhancement is connected to the existing AT&T infrastructure, the boxes cannot be made smaller.
“There are no plans to abandon the operation or the boxes,” Mr. Blakeman said. He also offered to share the results of AT&T’s “extensive testing” of the boxes and their contents.
Mr. Blakeman said, “No specific [health and safety] tests were performed by AT&T,” but he said that AT&T complies with City ordinances and codes. John Burke, director of the City’s Public Works department, said each box requires a permit and AT&T must meet City specifications to obtain the permit.
Joan Corwin, whose house is near a VRAD at Hartzell Street and Highland Avenue, said she felt it lowered the value of her property. Mr. Blakeman said, “We have no evidence of property values being affected by the boxes.”
In response to questions about whether AT&T, its employees or the state benefited financially from the roll-out of the boxes, Mr. Blakeman said, “Our compensation package is not structured that way.” He also said the State of Illinois reaps no financial gain, but, “the City gets fees of 6 percent of gross receipts.”
Several residents were adamant in their support of keeping the current Comcast community-access channels. AT&T cable service pushes community access to channel 99, which AT&T says is easier to access. One resident countered, “AT&T is sending community access to Siberia.”
Some residents asked whether they could participate in selecting the location of a box so it would be at the least offensive site possible. Mr. Blakeman said AT&T will work with residents if the boxes have not yet been installed. If the concrete pad has been poured, Mr. Blakeman said, the site location is not negotiable. About 30 of 99 boxes are still to be installed.
Responding to complaints about the appearance of the boxes, Mr. Blakeman said $1,500 is available for landscaping around three sides of each box, leaving access for maintenance. Residents will be reimbursed through the City for up to $1,500 of the landscaping costs. The City will provide landscaping for the boxes on City-owned property.
Neal Levin, who lives near a VRAD at Maple Avenue and Dempster Street, said, “AT&T had options and chose this one because it was cheaper. Let’s talk about economics. … Do you provide cheaper service?” Mr. Blakeman said, “AT&T will be 40 percent lower” than its competition, Comcast.
Another meeting is scheduled for Oct. 16.