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AT&T’s video-ready access devices (VRADs) have elicited a new concern for City officials, one that has some aldermen ready to call the company on the carpet.
This time it is not the proliferation of the 3-by-6-foot boxes humming and whirring in alleys and parkways and sporting “danger – high voltage” signs. Instead, said Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, AT&T has “redlined” the portion of Evanston south of Oakton Street and east of Ridge Avenue by not installing any VRADs there, discriminating against the area and effectively denying service to residents there.
“It’s an economic decision by AT&T to redline a portion of this town,” she told the members of the Rules Committee at its Sept. 8 meeting. “[This] has come to my attention through complaints. … It is my contention that the area east of Ridge, south of Oakton has been completely redlined by AT&T.”
Ald. Rainey also said that, even though AT&T had not installed any VRADs in that area, the company still sent out door-to-door marketers asking people if they would like to subscribe to AT&T’s U-Verse service.
Legislation passed unanimously by the state legislature two years ago allowed AT&T to compete with Comcast and other cable companies with its U-Verse service. Rather than connecting customers with underground cables, which company officials said would be costly and time-consuming, AT&T chose to install the VRADs near its already existing boxes, co-joining the services there.
AT&T representatives were invited to the Sept. 8 Rules Committee meeting, said City Manager Walter Bobkiewicz, “but they refused, and made it clear that they can build this system in any way they choose. … They also threatened not to build any additional infrastructure here.”
Mr. Bobkiewicz added that the presence of a VRAD does not necessarily mean the VRAD is providing AT&T U-Verse service there. Not all of the boxes are equipped for service, and not all of them have been switched on, he said.
“Just because you have a box,” Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “doesn’t mean you have service.” He said City officials “believe 60 of the boxes are operational.” AT&T is currently working in 13 other locations and has rescinded requests for permits to install VRADs at 151 Wesley Ave., 859 Asbury Ave. and 630 Foster St. If that represents the sum of the VRAD installations, the total number of VRADs in Evanston will be 73, not the 119 originally proposed by AT&T.
“I think we should bring this whole thing to a screaming halt until the matter is straightened out,” said Ald. Rainey.
Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said he had been reading the legislation, “and I don’t think AT&T has come anywhere close to living up to their obligations. The boxes don’t meet standards, and we’ve let that happen.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, recalled the Rules Committee meeting last year which State Representative Julie Hamos and State Senator Jeffrey Schoenberg attended and defended their votes on the legislation as votes to promote competition and cable access. “I think we have to contact Jeff and Julie and tell them this is the consequence of their action – that [AT&T has] to turn the boxes on,” Ald. Wynne said.
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl added that she thought the City should contact the Attorney General’s office about the possible discrimination.
Mr. Bobkiewicz and first assistant corporation counsel Elke Tober-Purze will review the legislation in light of the recent developments and then report their findings to the Rules Committee.