Members of the ad-hoc group Stoptheboxes who convened a meeting on Oct. 16 at the Robert Crown Center continued their opposition to the video-ready access devices (VRADs) that AT&T is installing on public rights of way to bring its Project Lightspeed cable access to Evanston. At this meeting they sought – and in some measure, received – the help of Evanston’s state legislators. They also presented some concerns about the installation process and the VRADs themselves, which they thought might violate the law that permits them.

The group invited State Representative Julie Hamos and State Senator Jeff Schoenberg to not just to hear complaints about the more than 50 VRADs already installed and the other 45 in the queue but also to help determine if any part of the installation or permit process – or any other aspect, for that matter – was in violation of the law enacted earlier this year by the state legislature to provide competition in providing Internet and cable TV service.

Because the legislation that allowed AT&T into Evanston pre-empted home-rule ordinances, the City Council had no say in the installation of the boxes.

Because the law pre-empted home rule, the City Council had no authority over AT&T’s entry into the community. However, Marc Blakeman, regional director for AT&T, said the company had to offer landscaping “if municipalities request it – about 100 have requested it so far.” He said AT&T offered the City a choice of making AT&T do the landscaping ourselves; paying the City $1,500 for every VRAD in the City, “regardless of whether it needs landscaping or not”; and paying the City of Evanston $2,000 per VRAD on only those that require landscaping. He said AT&T “came up those numbers – that’s roughly what it was costing us to hire landscapers for the projects.” He added that AT&T will not maintain the landscaping.

The technology inside the VRAD is heat-sensitive, so the boxes cannot be installed underground, said Marc Blakeman and Andrew Ross of AT&T. They have also been coated with anti-graffiti material so they cannot be painted artistically.

City officials have said that so far AT&T has met the requirements to receive permits to allow the installation of the VRADs.

Public Works Director John Burke said the City has asked AT&T to halt installation of new boxes for the winter.

Objections to VRADs

In addition to aesthetic considerations, residents expressed other reasons they opposed the VRADs. One resident, who said he worked in technology, said AT&T is using present-day technology for the VRADs, rather than using more future-oriented technology, such as fiber-optic cables, which represent a more sophisticated technology and are buried underground.

Andrew Ross, Illinois spokesperson for AT&T, told the RoundTable AT&T is using “new and exciting technology.” Mr. Blakeman said the technology is “state-of-the-art.” Even though the technology may be cutting edge, AT&T chose to use its existing infrastructure – boxes that were already on rights-of-way and parkways, now often seen in tandem with the new VRADs – rather than “disrupt consumers further by digging up their yards or hanging a new wire to install fiber-optic cables between the existing boxes and the homes,” said Mr. Blakeman. With the VRAD mechanism, he said, “fiber-optic cables bring the [information, picture, telephone call] to the existing boxes, and the VRADs connect the fiber-optics to the consumer by means of the existing copper wires.”

When asked, neither Mr. Blakeman nor Mr. Ross would respond to the question of whether using the present infrastructure also benefited AT&T, because it reduced their costs.

Cable Access: Better or Worse?

For several years Comcast has been the sole provider of cable television in Evanston. In addition to the regular cable channels, Evanston has four public, education and government (PEG) cable channels: Channel 6 offers local programs; 16 is the City channel; 18 is WKIT, the Evanston Township High School channel; and 19 is for School District 65, said Steve Bartlebaugh, director of the Evanston Community Media Center.

AT&T plans to have only one channel – Channel 99 – for PEG programs. The difference is in the application, Mr. Bartlebaugh said, because once users turn to channel 99 they will have a menu to get them to the proper local channel. However, he added, because AT&T will have no available program schedule, viewers may not always find the program they are seeking. At the Oct. 16 meeting, some audience members said they feared that the high-numbered channel and the menu –which some called “confusing” – would eventually result in a loss of viewers of PEG programs, and, thus, they said, of true access to PEG cable television.

Mr. Ross said AT&T’s Project Lightspeed platform “provides a new and innovative way of delivering PEG programming. He said, unlike Comcast, which offers only Evanston PEG programs, AT&T will offer the PEG programs of many municipalities (available through a click-on menu on channel 99). “This increases access to PEG programs,” he said.

The ‘Hum’

Complaints about noise sparked the interest of the legislators. One resident said the noise from the VRAD on the parkway by his house “sounds like a vacuum cleaner running, even when we have all the windows shut.” He said the noise is hard on his family, particularly on his young children.

John Burke, public works director for the City, told the RoundTable the VRADs must conform to a required decibel-level and added that his office had received no complaints about noise. Mr. Blakeman said all VRADS emit a “hum” from the fans within.

Mr. Ross said the VRADs are “designed to meet municipal noise levels” and that any noise associated with the VRADs is “not loud enough to disturb Evanston residents.”

Four RoundTable reporters have investigated noise coming from VRADs at different times and in various locations in the City. On a weekend afternoon a VRAD in front of a school emitted sound loud enough to be heard among other noises at about seven feet away. On a week day afternoon a VRAD a few feet away from a busy street could be heard from about eight feet away. On a quiet weekday morning, the whirr from a VRAD in a residential neighborhood could be heard at about 15 feet away.

At the Oct. 16 meeting, Rep. Hamos said she thought the Stoptheboxes group should have a bus tour, “with all the right people” to demonstrate the problem of the VRADs. She said she would help the committee get in touch with AT&T representatives and “others who might be able to help.”

Next Steps

Sen. Schoenberg and Rep. Hamos said they would ask some of their colleagues whether their municipalities were having difficulties with the VRADs. They said they did not wish to hold out hope that something could be done legislatively, “because this bill was passed unanimously.” Rep. Hamos added, “We might be able to help, but not with something that requires 60 [legislative] votes.”

Mr. Burke said that since the construction season is winding down, the City has asked AT&T not to initiate construction of new VRAD pads until after the winter.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...