After months of wrangling between AT&T and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the board narrowly approved allowing the company to upgrade its network by installing hundreds of 4-foot-tall boxes around the city.
The board voted 6-5 in favor of the proposal, which calls for the installation of 726 boxes around San Francisco to house AT&T's "Lightspeed" data transmission technology that would improve its Internet, cable and landline phone service in the city.
However, the company pledged to only install 495 at first before seeking further approval from supervisors to build the rest.
In February, San Francisco's Planning Department gave the project an exemption from the state's usually lengthy environmental review process, but opponents appealed the exemption to the board, saying the boxes would impede pedestrian traffic, inconvenience property owners and reduce the city's aesthetic appeal.
Milo Hanke, the past president of San Francisco Beautiful, one of the opponents who appealed the issue to the board, called the boxes "an encroachment on what makes San Francisco unique."
Supervisors held a lengthy hearing on the issue in April, but voted to delay the decision for a month while more study was done on the plan. The decision was delayed twice more in May and June while AT&T officials met with each supervisor to discuss their issues with the proposal.
Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi tried to delay the vote until after the board's August recess, but his motion failed, and the board voted by the slimmest of margins today to affirm the exemption from the environmental review.
Mirkarimi joined David Chiu, Jane Kim, Eric Mar and John Avalos as the five supervisors who voted no on the exemption.
The board's approval will allow AT&T to start work in the city as soon as Wednesday.
Marc Blakeman, the company's regional vice president, said they plan to do just that by starting work Wednesday at a location on La Playa Street in the city's Outer Richmond neighborhood where they had already applied for a permit before the project was appealed to the board.
Blakeman said the board's decision "means we're finally going to be able to bring competition and choice to San Francisco."
Comcast is currently the only major provider of cable service in the city.
Blakeman said AT&T pledges to work with neighborhood groups on where to put the boxes, which each serve about 400 households.
"We want to build where the community wants us to be," he said.
The company also pledged to hire a third of its workers for the project from San Francisco, well above the 20 percent required by the city's local hire ordinance.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, who oversaw the negotiations between the board and the company, said following the vote that the issue has generated strong opinions on both sides.
"No matter how I voted, there's going to be people mad at me," Wiener said.