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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

PHONES — Irate Residents Sending Message About Internet Boxes

Those innocuous-looking phone equipment boxes you see on sidewalks throughout the city have suddenly become the center of fierce debate, as phone companies seek to install more of them to accommodate the burgeoning demand for high-speed Internet access lines. Spurred by complaints from homeowners groups concerned that the proliferation of these gray metal cabinets is creating visual blight in neighborhoods, the Los Angeles City Bureau of Engineering has come out with regulations limiting their size and number. “These boxes are springing up everywhere and there is absolutely no regulation,” said Tarzana Property Owners Association board member Kathy Delle Donne. “Not only are they a physical blight, they are also perfect targets for graffiti taggers.” But phone companies and their business allies are fighting back, saying the regulations are too burdensome and would cause delays in the deployment of digital subscriber lines (DSL), currently the cheapest alternative for high-speed Internet access. Their chief concern: the recommended size limit of 36 cubic feet per box is too small to accommodate the latest in data communications technology. “This is public policy gone mad,” said Rohit Shukla, president and chief executive of the Technology Alliance of Southern California. “If these regulations pass, people who can’t get DSL service now will have to wait longer and pay more for it. Los Angeles is already one of the lowest-rated major cities when it comes to wiring for high-speed Internet access; this will only make it worse.” Hearings slated On Wednesday, the two sides are scheduled to square off in a city Board of Public Works hearing, although there were some indications late last week that the hearing date might be postponed. A final set of regulations could come before the L.A. City Council later this year. At the center of the debate are the desk-sized phone equipment boxes, which contain the copper wires that connect residents and businesses to major phone trunk lines. These boxes have been around for decades on sidewalks and in front of homes. For most of that time, they have been seen as essential to the region’s phone infrastructure and have not drawn much opposition. That started to change as demand for additional phone lines surged over the last decade. To accommodate these additional lines, phone companies either made the boxes bigger or installed more of them. “In the old days, people had one or two phone lines going into their homes, so the boxes could be small and spaced reasonably apart,” said Kendrick Okuda, a civil engineer in the city’s Bureau of Engineering. “But with computers and then the Internet, you now can have five, six or even more lines going into a single home. That has driven up the demand for these boxes.” Another factor has been deregulation of the telecommunications industry, which has resulted in more telecommunications providers; each company either needs its own boxes or must lease them from one of the two local phone companies, GTE Corp. and Pacific Bell. Ultimately, Delle Donne said, the best solution is to have the boxes placed underground, though that would cause temporary inconveniences as streets are dug up. Delle Donne and other neighborhood activists took their complaints to Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who in February 1999 got her colleagues on the council to approve a moratorium on the phone boxes and order city staff to come up with regulations. (The moratorium, still in effect, doesn’t prohibit the deployment of these boxes altogether; rather, it requires approval from individual council members for all new boxes.) “There needs to be a balance between the needs of technology and keeping neighborhoods where people live beautiful,” said Lisa Levy, San Fernando Valley deputy to Miscikowski. (The councilwoman was unavailable for comment last week.) Regulators demand smaller boxes The Bureau of Engineering released its proposed regulations earlier this month. They state that companies seeking to install phone wire boxes bigger than 36 cubic feet would need to get a variance from the Board of Public Works. The proposed regulations also would limit companies to a density of no more than four boxes for every 1,000 feet of curb length. But phone-company officials say the size limitation would make it much more difficult to install additional lines and the data cards needed for digital services. “Right now, our typical box is right about 36 cubic feet in size,” said Clare Ervin, area manager for Pacific Bell Construction and Engineering. “But we need additional space for more electronics inside the boxes, to enable the higher-speed transmissions that come with DSL and fiber technology.” Besides taking longer to get the variances for bigger boxes, phone-company officials are concerned that residential opposition could result in the applications being denied altogether. “This could result in our needing to install more boxes, which means more poles to connect to the boxes and more digging up of streets to get the wires to the boxes,” said George Kieffer, an attorney with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP who is representing GTE. Business groups are concerned that the regulations could slow down the deployment of DSL and raise costs for consumers. “This goes counter to the city’s stated goal of bridging the digital divide, especially in the Latino community,” said Rebecca Barrantes, government relations representative for the Latin Business Association. “We don’t want to see anything that could slow down the spread of the Internet.”

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