Few cities in the world owe as much to the Internet as San Francisco does. Both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 helped to fund office construction, thousands of high-paying jobs, and soaring home prices in the city and across the whole Bay Area. The 'Net also owes a lot to San Francisco, the birthplace of Craigslist, Twitter, Blogger.com, and countless other startups.
But the city is also a hotbed of activism against big corporations and in favor of cycling, walking and more livable neighborhoods, among other things. So the cozy relationship between San Francisco and the Internet sometimes turns as cool as the city's foggy summer days. In 2007, residents' objections helped to kill a plan for free citywide Wi-Fi supported by EarthLink and Google. Privacy and franchise fees were among the hot-button issues.
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Last year, when AT&T tried to extend its high-speed U-verse service to the city, the roll-out plan was too much for many residents to swallow. More specifically, the activists say, the U-verse infrastructure is too much for San Francisco's sidewalks to swallow.
With U-verse, AT&T can deliver faster Internet access as well as high-definition television by bringing optical fiber closer to its customers' homes. That would mean data at speeds up to 18Mb per second and more than 80 channels of TV, an alternative to Comcast, the local cable franchisee.
To do this, AT&T is taking a different approach from that of Verizon, the other big U.S. carrier. Verizon is running fiber all the way into homes, even in older neighborhoods. AT&T is going all-fiber with new construction, but in areas that are already built out the company says it can roll out the new service faster by bringing fiber to a local "node" and relying on existing copper wires to reach the homes.
That requires a box 48 inches high, 50 inches wide and 26 inches deep in each neighborhood to link up the fiber and copper and send the signals on to homes. In many locations, this box also needs another large piece of equipment to help power the service. AT&T has said it may need as many as 850 of these facilities to cover the city.
Those boxes may be fine in the suburbs, with wide sidewalks that go mostly unused, but in San Francisco, they would be hazards and eyesores, said Susan Maerki of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors Association. She says the narrow sidewalks in her neighborhood, a residential and commercial area near Golden Gate Park, are already crowded with pedestrians, and the large boxes would block drivers' views at busy intersections. Like AT&T's current utility boxes, they will also be magnets for graffiti and trash, according to critics. The boxes could even provide a hiding place for muggers, some say.
One set of boxes that has already been installed, in a relatively spacious part of the city, left room to walk by on the sidewalk. But a fan in one box made a low buzzing sound, and graffiti artists had already stopped by.
Neighbors have lodged protests with the city against more than half of the cabinet sites AT&T has identified so far, according to Maerki. In some cases, such as a site near the famed crooked section of Lombard Street, multiple protests were made, she said.