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Something is invading Oak Park. But it’s not aliens, tree-eating beetles or pirates.
Five-foot-tall, grayish boxes are being set up around the village. They provide a new cable television service from AT&T called “U-Verse.” Approximately 45 have gone up already, many tucked away in alleys and behind commercial buildings.
However, roughly two dozen sit on Oak Park residents’ side lawns, right in the public parkway, says Jim Budrick, village engineer. AT&T still needs to install another 15 or so, he added. The company had to apply for a permit for every box. Oak Park rejected about a dozen applications because they were located in awkward spots.
“We tried to get them in the least disruptive locations possible,” Budrick said.
Residents’ opinions on the boxes range from indifferent to indignant.
Tina Sarantos has lived in a corner house on the 300 block of South Euclid Avenue for 12 years. AT&T added two boxes to the lawn next to her home on Randolph Street. The boxes are being placed near older AT&T phone boxes, so the addition is nothing new.
“It didn’t have an impact on my life,” she said. “It comes with having a parkway.”
She was happy no plants were killed in the process, and said she isn’t bothered by the whirring noise that comes from the boxes.
Roch Schmitt has lived across the alley on the 300 block of South Oak Park Avenue for three years. The tall box blocked his sight once when he was turning into the alley, hiding a couple of pedestrians. Workers regularly blocked the alley when the box was installed. Otherwise, “They don’t bother me,” he said.
However, a set of boxes near the intersection of Harvard Street and Harvey Avenue have caused problems for a group of residents in south Oak Park.
Resident Jim Kelly, of the 1000 block of South Harvey, said the boxes started going up about four months ago, without much warning. They sit close to the alley and block the sightlines of motorists exiting onto Harvard Street. Also, a cooling fan in the box is noisy.
Because of safety concerns, residents in the area have gathered more than 60 signatures attempting to relocate the boxes.
“We’re primarily concerned about what we perceive to be a safety issue with traffic coming in and out of the alley,” Kelly said.
However, AT&T has said other suggested locations for those boxes are “not feasible” and the company has no plans to move them, Budrick said. The new boxes must be within 300 feet of AT&T’s old phone line boxes. Oak Park stuck to that rule because it didn’t want a “proliferation” of them around town. No trees were lost in the process.
Budrick said the company originally wanted to have far more of the boxes in the public parkway, but the village worked carefully to put many of them in alleys or on private easements. The south Oak Park residents are the only ones who have petitioned to move a box at this point, he added.
Cable competition in Oak Park
AT&T first started installing the boxes last fall. They’re intended to provide a video service to compete with Comcast. Budrick said the company will run Internet-based video over telephone lines.
Legislation, passed in Springfield in 2007, shifted cable franchising responsibilities from local jurisdictions to the state level, said David Powers, communications director for the village. Called the Cable and Video Competition Law of 2007, it provides various “customer service standards.”
Those include customers getting a $25 credit if a cable serviceperson doesn’t show up in a four-hour window and giving customers a 30-day notice before price hikes.
Also, Oak Park earlier this month adopted new cable service and provider fees. The village can now charge state franchisees looking to provide service here a 5-percent provider fee and a 1-percent fee to support local access channels, according to village documents.
Powers said there are concerns about how the service will affect Oak Park’s VOP-TV6, the village’s in-house, government access station. Officials have been meeting with AT&T to figure out the steps to have the service carry TV6’s signal.
Currently, AT&T is proposing putting all access channels on 99. Users can select which municipality to watch from a drop-down menu. TV6 might be available to a larger audience but be stuck in a far less attractive slot, Powers said.
There are also concerns that TV6 would come in at a lower quality. An organization called the Alliance for Community Media also has concerns about delay times for the channels on U-Verse, along with DVR functionality and closed captioning, according to a press release earlier this month.
“There are some issues that still need to be solved,” Powers said. “We’re cautiously optimistic that it will be a competitive new service for the viewers, but also make sure the [public, educational and governmental] channels are protected.”
The service isn’t yet available. Solicitors are currently plugging it around the village, Powers said. AT&T has also said it’s working to improve broadcast quality with the service.
Oak Park’s government access channel will remain on channel 6 for Comcast users. But if TV6 has to move to channel 99 on U-Verse, Powers said both AT&T and the village will work to promote that change and educate people about where the channel went.
“We think there’s a place for this programming on the dial,” Powers said.