The march of the VRADs, halted briefly over the winter months, has begun again. Last week the City’s Site Plan and Appearance Review Committee approved permits for six of the video-ready access devices (VRADs), through which AT&T provides its Project Lightspeed Uverse cable service. Altogether, AT&T has identified around 100 sites in the City for the boxes, which they say are placed above-ground and as near to existing AT&T equipment as possible.
Work on these six VRADs was begun last fall, but the permits expired when work was stopped because of the upcoming winter weather. At City Council’s direction, AT&T is in the process of reapplying for permits for the remaining boxes.
Project Lightspeed was approved about two years ago by the Illinois General Assembly to allow AT&T to compete with Comcast for cable and high-speed Internet services.
Rather than create new equipment or dig new wires into yards – which he said would be less aesthetically pleasing than the VRADS – Mark Blakemore, regional vice president for external affairs, said the company chose to build on its existing equipment. He also said that Evanston’s narrow alleys and parkways preclude underground placement. “We would have to dig a 10-foot-by-10-foot hole in the ground,” he said. “And even then there would be above-ground equipment – at least a 3-foot-tall air-conditioning unit.”
Resident and Council opposition to the boxes has been high, but neither group has been able to make much headway against Project Lightspeed and AT&T.
An ad-hoc committee, “Stop the Boxes,” was able to prevail in some measure: AT&T and City staff now work with homeowners whose parkways or alleys are affected by the boxes, and neighbors are also notified in writing about the imminent placement of a VRAD in the area.
Calling the boxes “eyesores” or worse, residents have complained about the size, placement, noise and aesthetics of the boxes: They are between 4 and 6 feet tall and about 3 feet wide. They are made of a beige polymer that, AT&T says, is heat-sensitive and graffiti-resistant and so cannot be painted, decorated or shrink-wrapped to minimize the visual impact on the alleys and parkways. Air-conditioning equipment within produces a hum of varying degrees of loudness, which AT&T claims is within the decibel requirement of the City’s ordinance.
Referring to the placement of one VRAD very near a child’s bedroom, resident Neil Levin said, “Is that the height of corporate arrogance?”
“City Council is very concerned about the impact of these boxes on property values,” said Joe Hagee, a long-time real estate agent and resident of Evanston.
Under the state grant of approval for AT&T to compete with Comcast and other cable companies was a mandate that AT&T pay for landscaping around the boxes if it was requested.
Last year the City asked that residents complete the landscaping themselves, then present bills for reimbursement. This year, the City’s Parks/Forestry Division is preparing landscaping options for residents.
City crews will do the installation. Then residents will be responsible for maintenance, as with other parkways, said Paul D’Agostino, superintendents of Parks/Forestry. He added that the landscaping will be done on a “case-by-case basis, since the placement and size of the VRADs vary.”
At the SPARC meeting Mr. Blakemore said – and City staff members agreed – that AT&T had followed the permit application process for these locations, and committee members unanimously agreed to grant the permits.