Carrier Moves to Defuse Explosive Situation

AT&T meets with real estate brokers concerned over safety of U-Verse utility cabinets. 

AT&T met with real estate brokers Feb. 17 in hopes of defusing concerns over the telecom giant's defective utility cabinets that have resulted in two explosions and two fires. The five-foot tall cabinets equipped with 50-pound doors are part of AT&T's fiber-optic U-Verse service delivering phone, data and television service.

NAREB (National Association of Real Estate Brokers) filed complaints in five states last week urging investigations into the matter. AT&T blames the problem on batteries made by Avestor, a Canadian firm that went out of business in 2006.

According to an AT&T spokesperson, there are about 17,000 deployed U-Verse cabinets throughout the country. AT&T ceased deploying Avestor's LMP (Lithium-Metal-Polymer) battery technology in its utility cabinets in the first quarter of 2007. The company also said it is "moving aggressively" to replace the remaining Avestor batteries.

A spokesperson for NAREB, an organization of 35,000 members, said the group decided to file state complaints when AT&T "did not move with all deliberate speed" to fix the battery problem. After the complaints were filed Feb. 15, AT&T met with NAREB representatives at AT&T's headquarters in San Antonio, Texas.

"We did a have meeting to discuss possible remedies," a NAREB spokesperson told eWEEK. "We are satisfied they are listening to our complaints and taking them seriously. We were pleased with the meeting."

However, they are not ready to withdraw their complaints. "You can be sure we will continue monitoring the situation," the spokesperson said.

The brokers say they first approached AT&T about the cabinets after one exploded near the home of a Houston-area couple in October 2006. NAREB said AT&T promised to move "expeditiously" in correcting the problem. Three months later another Houston cabinet caught fire.

AT&T then reported a third fire in a U-Verse box and another explosion in a fourth. The second explosion occurred in Wauwatosa, Wis., on Christmas and blew the door off the cabinet.

"We have nothing against the service itself," the NAREM spokesperson said. "But we feel we have a role as guardians of the communities in which we serve. We speak loudly when we have to."

NAREB also complains that sales of homes near the U-Verse boxes will drop in value until AT&T proves the boxes are safe. "The housing market is very bad right now and we clearly do not need this," the spokesperson said. "This is a service [offered by AT&T] and we have an obligation to make sure it is safe."

Following the first explosion, AT&T said it employed an engineering and scientific consulting firm to investigate the issue.

"The firm found that the risk of hazardous failures with Avestor batteries was as low, if not lower, than the risk with alternative batteries used by municipalities and other telecommunications and cable companies in similar applications," the AT&T spokesperson said.

At the end of the fourth quarter, AT&T reported 231,000 U-verse TV subscribers in service, up from 126,000 at the end of the third quarter. The telecom carrier said as of mid-December it was deploying the service to about 12,000 new customers a week.

AT&T plans to reach more than 30 million living units across AT&T's 22 states by the end of 2010.