Sandy Springs is cracking down on fiber-optic cable installations that are drawing complaints, and has launched an online map to show active fiber work in the city.
The new rules approved by City Council Sept. 6 apply to all utility permits, but are aimed at fiber brands such as AT&T and Google, which have contractors digging up streets and yards in a rapid push to build out their cutting-edge, high-speed internet and TV networks. The rules will require 72-hour advance notice to property owners, better contact information and pre-permit meetings with city staff—and will come with “aggressive” enforcement against rule-breaking, City Manager John McDonough said.
“We’ve had an arms race, if you will, with fiber,” said city Public Works Director Garrin Coleman, in a metaphor used by several city officials.
But what they described was more like trench warfare: competing companies repeatedly digging up the same streets and yards, sometimes without local notice and with shoddy restoration work. Half of the council and Mayor Rusty Paul described complaints, with Councilmember Andy Bauman saying some fiber companies are “leaving a trail of carnage” in neighborhoods.
AT&T and Google Fiber, two of the fiber utilities mentioned by name, said in statements that they work closely with cities on installation. Neither company directly acknowledged any problems.
Tom Murtaugh, co-president of the Powers Lake Homeowners Association, said in an email that AT&T fiber installation there has been damaging. “In my yard, for example, they cut the AT&T internet service line twice (a week apart), my sprinkler line, and my Xfinity line,” he said. “They have severed the water lines to at least five houses that I know of.”
Similar fiber installation problems have been reported by media nationwide, including in Austin, Texas and Raleigh, N.C. The neighboring cities of Atlanta, Brookhaven and Dunwoody have fielded complaints as well, though the amount and reaction varies, according to city spokespeople.
Dunwoody is seeing a reduction in complaints—after putting some holds on permits. Brookhaven has seen “less than a handful of warnings for minor erosion issues” and has not halted any work. The city of Atlanta works closely with Google Fiber and recently assigned an inspector specific to utility right-of-way areas.
Right of way can be a source of complaints when homeowners don’t realize they don’t have full control of that strip of land, noted Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition, who said he has helped resolve many fiber-related complaints. Another problem is when other utilities are poorly marked on old maps, which led Google Fiber to accidentally hit some gas lines in Dunwoody earlier this year.
In Sandy Springs, Coleman indicated that complaints and problems are increasing hand-in-hand with a huge boom in utility permits, as companies apparently build northward from Atlanta.
He said that at this time last year, the city had issued 193 utility permits; so far this year, it has issued 746. Constituent calls about utility work are also trending up: 545 calls so far this year, contrasting with 564 in all of 2015. Coleman said there is no data on how many of those calls were complaints—as opposed to questions or other issues—or how many were directed at specific companies.
The city has its own complaints, too. Coleman said that Google Fiber’s first permit in Sandy Springs, on Spalding Drive, was carried out by a contractor who went beyond the allowed work times into rush hour. “That wasn’t a good start,” Coleman said.
The new rules will require 72 hours’ notice to property owners—up from the current 24—which must be done with door-hanger notices. Those notices must include the permit number, the utility company’s name, a description of property owners’ rights and a 24-hour contact person.
For even more public notice, the city immediately launched an interactive map of all utility work underway or pending in the city, which is available at sandyspringsga.gov.