Real Estate Brokers Call ATT Utility Boxes a Fire Hazard

Brokers complain that explosions and fires in AT&T's fiber deployment utility boxes in several neighborhoods present a hazard and hurt home values.

A group of real estate brokers filed complaints Feb. 15 with five states urging an investigation into incidents involving explosions and fires in AT&T utility boxes. The boxes are part of AT&T's fiber-optic U-Verse service delivering phone, data and television service.

According to both the NAREB (National Association of Real Estate Brokers) and AT&T, there have been four documented cases of U-Verse boxes either exploding or catching fire. According to AT&T, the incidents have resulted in no injuries to humans and "some" property damage.

AT&T blames the problem on batteries made by Avestor, which is no longer in business. AT&T said there are some 17,000 deployed U-Verse boxes. "We have already begun replacing the Avestor batteries, and we plan to complete the work as soon as possible," an AT&T spokesperson said in an e-mail to eWEEK.

NAREB complains that sales of homes near the U-Verse boxes will drop in value until AT&T proves the boxes are safe.

"These large U-Verse cabinets have been proven to be hazardous from their early rollout stages," NAREB President Maria Kong said in a statement. "We cannot afford to take chances when it comes to the livelihood of residents who live near these boxes, or their property."

Problems with the boxes were first reported in October 2006 when a U-Verse cabinet exploded in a Houston residential area. A few months later, a second cabinet in Houston caught fire. AT&T then reported a third fire in a U-Verse box and an explosion in a fourth. The second explosion occurred in Wauwatosa, Wis., and blew a 50-pound door off the box.

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&T ceased deploying the Avestor batteries in its utility boxes in the first quarter of 2007. "We are moving aggressively to replace all the Avestor batteries as soon as possible," the 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 approximately 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.