Informed Consent

1:00 PM -- Officials in Connecticut are going at it again with AT&T over the issue of whether residents really want AT&T's video-ready access devices (VRADs) dangling off the telephone poles in their fair cities. And as big a migraine as it must give AT&T to argue with local municipalities, I can't say I blame the Connecticut Yankees for their persistence this time around. (See More Pole Positioning and Pole Position.)

The pole-mounted VRAD boxes, required equipment to deliver AT&T's U-verse service, which is splendid, are usually between knee and head height. They weight a lot. (The VRADs, not the Connecticut residents. That I know of.) They're said to block sidewalks and the view of drivers and pedestrians trying to negotiate those hard, mean streets of, say, Danbury or Bridgeport.

What various city officials in Connecticut want to know now is: How informed need someone be when they give their permission -- their informed consent -- to AT&T so it could proceed in putting up these monstrosities all over the Mystic Country?

A recent filing with the Connecticut Department of Utility Control (DPUC) asks the agency to clarify two of its rulings, one of which seems to require AT&T to get "informed" consent from residents nearby its VRADs. The other ruling asks AT&T to get informed consent from adjoining property owners "where V-RAD boxes have already been installed and where such consent was contested."

Were the people contesting their (apparently previously granted) consent truly informed of what was happening to their neighborhoods, properties, etc.?

Did AT&T really explain what it was doing, or did it just tickle everyone's fanny with some blue-sky chatter about competition, freedom, motherhood, and apple pie?

Is it any wonder -- as this story notes -- that some consumers don't trust that AT&T's gear is safe, given how slowly and defensively it acted on the problems it was having with its VRAD equipment?

Think about it: We first covered the DSLAM explosions in Houston in November 2006. In August 2007, AT&T said there were no problems with its gear, that the VRAD explosions were said to be an isolated incident, and that the "battery design was sound." Then, only after significant public pressure and a slew of embarrassing photos and press reports were published, did the company announce it would begin replacing the faulty batteries in its VRAD cabinets. That announcement came in January 2008.

Look, I really like my U-verse service. And I like the potential IPTV technology offers, on the whole. But look at the position AT&T has put itself in:

Here's a company gave us some good reasons why we should ALWAYS question it thoroughly in matters of public safety. Following that, it gave reasons as to why we should be increasingly skeptical when it wants to bury the bad news and insist that all is well.

So, really, should we be surprised that consumers are going to raise hackles when U-verse comes to town?

Should it shock us that there will be consumers that give their permission for U-verse upgrades near their homes, then go online, review the events of the last few years and change their minds?

AT&T should not mistake marketing and advertising for education and public relations. The issue here continues to be one of perceived public safety. More mailings, more commercials, and muscling up on municipalities with lawyers and lobbyists is not going to sway a homeowner who, in certain proximity to a pole-mounted VRAD, secretly wonders if he should be dressed for battle when he goes out for the morning papers.

— Phil Harvey, Editor, Light Reading

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