08/25/2011 12:55 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2011

San Francisco AT&T Lawsuit: Utility Boxes On Hold As Neighborhood Groups Sue City

When the Board of Supervisors approved AT&T's plan to install 726 utility boxes on San Francisco sidewalks last month without first submitting the plan to a lengthy environmental review, it looked like the final obstacle to toppling Comcast's cable service monopoly in the city had been surmounted.

Now the installation of the boxes may be put on hold: A coalition of neighborhood groups including San Francisco Beautiful, Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association and San Francisco Tomorrow are suing the city to require the project to undergo that review. The groups have asked for the construction of the boxes to be stalled until a final decision is made.

"We really don't want to sue, but we are left with no choice when the city refuses to uphold its own environment codes and is about to give away our sidewalks for the benefit of a private company without objective review," former San Francisco Beautiful President Milo Hanke told the San Francisco Chronicle.

The groups worry that the boxes will crowd city sidewalks, act as magnets for graffiti and harm the unique character of their neighborhoods.

There are already over 1,000 similar utility boxes currently on sidewalks all over San Francisco.

Even though the boxes will have no effect on AT&T's less-than-stellar cellular service in the city, they are an essential component of the telecom giant's U-Verse service providing cable, Internet and home phone service to consumers.

The plan agreed to by the Board of Supervisors was significantly scaled back from AT&T's original proposal. After delaying their final vote for months, the Board in July agreed to let AT&T install the boxes, but only if individual supervisors had the ability to veto approximately half of the locations within their individual districts if they thought the boxes' placement too inappropriate.

These concessions did little to appease the plan's opponents. San Francisco Business Times reports:

Activists say the boxes, which would be four feet across, just over four feet tall and about two feet deep, and sit on concrete pedestals flanked by metal bollards, will impact pedestrian traffic and impair neighborhood aesthetics.

AT&T in 2007 planned to make San Francisco one of the first cities in California to get U-verse, a package that includes TV, Internet, home wireless and residential phone service. City planners back then also determined that an environmental review was not required, but following intense opposition from neighborhood activists AT&T withdrew its application in July 2008.

Critics charge that AT&T hasn't done enough to comply with a 2005 Department of Public Works policy (instituted under then DWP chief Ed Lee) that utility boxes not be placed on city sidewalks unless it is absolutely necessary.

SF Appeal reports:

The company insists that if the boxes were to go underground, each would need to be installed inside a 10-square foot concrete room and still require attendant above-ground equipment. Not only that, argues the telecom giant, but the construction work required to place the boxes underground would be even more of an inconvenience and eyesore than the boxes themselves.

AT&T wants to avoid placing the boxes on private property because they then may be difficult to service if the property owner is unavailable to let a company technician into a normally locked-off area.

San Francisco is the last major city in the state without the U-Verse service.