Misunderstanding Public Rights-of-Way

I read an article on WBAY.com, the ABC affiliate in Green Bay, Wisconsin that highlights residents’ dismay over AT&T putting 3-foot pedestals in front yards as part of the process of bringing fiber to a neighborhood. This is a good reminder of the ongoing saga between homeowners and telecom companies over the placement of facilities in public rights-of-ways.

Most homeowners don’t realize that their community has granted a right-of-way for utilities directly along streets and roads. It’s typical for a local government to provide 3-5 feet of right-of-way for utility purposes. The chances are that there are several utilities already buried in the disputed right-of-way in this Green Bay neighborhood. Most utilities are installed before houses are first sold to the public, so homeowners often have no clue that utilities already use their property.

Nobody reminds homeowners when they buy a house that utilities have a right to do construction or place devices at the front of their yard. I can’t recall ever being told that, although it might be buried in the thick pile of papers one signs when buying a home. Homeowners routinely plant flower beds or shrubs in the right-of-way, not realizing that a utility may one day rip out what they have done.

In a situation that is all too familiar with any fiber overbuilder, a city will direct a fiber builder to use the public rights-of-way whenever possible. I’m sure that when AT&T went to build fiber in this particular neighborhood that it was understood by both AT&T and the city that any devices were to be put into the public rights-of-way. There is a disingenuous quote by the Green Bay Public Works Director that his agency and the city are not responsible for the placement of the pedestals – because the city established the rights-of-way and his department approved the permits for the fiber construction.

Every fiber overbuilder can tell stories of irate homeowners who hated when burying fiber dug up a flower bed or, in this example, placed devices that homeowners don’t want. No fiber builder wants to create animosity with potential customers when they place a new network. In this case, AT&T has a legitimate beef when city employees throw up their hands as if this situation is out of their control. Cities enthusiastically support rights-of-ways as a way to keep the placement of utilities under control.

With that said, fiber builders have options. AT&T didn’t have to choose 3-foot-tall pedestals to place in this neighborhood. They could just as easily have used buried flowerpots that would have housed the fiber connections under a metal lid. I have a number of clients that won’t use pedestals for this reason, except perhaps in a few places where there is no other physical choice.

I remember disputes in recent years where cellular companies were placing 12-foot-tall small cell sites in rights-of-way in Colorado – monstrous devices that nobody would want in their front yard. It seems that carriers sometimes go out of their way to antagonize the public. In the long run, utilities and homeowners need to coexist. It’s likely that at least some of the homeowners on this particular street won’t buy broadband from AT&T due to the pedestal issue – or at least not for a few years until people no longer notice the pedestals and the issue is forgotten.

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