Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The City already paused construction plans on several Google Fiber “network huts” last month, but company officials told City staff that construction has to wait anyway due to “changes in technology,” Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni told City Council on Wednesday.
Residents that live near a hut in Haskin Park have said it damaged the park and was built without community input or proper permitting. Other residents have welcomed the infrastructure that aims to bring hyper-fast internet service to several neighborhoods in San Antonio.
“There’s been a lot of work to date, and we’re going to try to address as many concerns as we can,” Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements, said.
Neither Google representatives nor the company’s local lobbyist, Frank Burney, attended the meeting.
While both AT&T Fiber and Google Fiber require network distribution nodes, Google’s “huts” – 300 sq. ft. structures that require air conditioning units and security fences – are far larger.
John Whitsett lives across the street from Haskin Park in Oak Park-Northwood in District 10 and is leading neighborhood opposition efforts. He has sent several emails to the mayor, Council members, City staff, reporters, and neighbors arguing that the huts are intrusive to neighborhoods. He’d like to see the one in Haskin Park removed entirely.
“The problem is there are very nearby sites that Google can buy with their money and the hut can be moved and still provide the services that everyone is interested in receiving,” Whitsett stated in an email sent right after the meeting. “Moving and service are not mutually exclusive, but Google might have to spend something other than taxpayer (dollars).”
Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) commended Whitsett’s advocacy on the issue, and described the implementation of fiberoptic infrastructure as a learning experience for the City.
“We learned the hard way that you’ve got to have the very best communication with all those people who are going to be affected by it,” Gallagher said.
In addition to one built in Haskin Park, Google has also completed a hut in West End Park that raised concerns because its original location was in the middle of a soccer field. With pressure from Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), the hut was moved seven feet away to a less intrusive spot, and its barbed wire security fence will be decorated with artwork.
“Part of the heartburn in the initial unveiling of this is there was not much of a plan,” Treviño said.
In a Dec. 22 meeting Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni acknowledged that the City may have been “rushed in the thrill of getting Google Fiber and trying to meet their timeline which, at the time, was pretty fast-paced.”
The original hut locations were approved by City Council in 2015 as part of a 20-year, $1 million master lease agreement with Google.
There are no plans to remove the two huts that have already been installed; however, the Historic and Design Review Commission voted unanimously in December to send design plans back to the drawing board. Google agreed to submit more specific fencing and landscaping plans.
A total of eight huts – four slated for city parks, three for vacant residential lots, and one for the Johnston Branch Library – will now be placed in alternate locations. Seven other sites will remain as planned.
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) commended the adjustment, pointing out the irony of spending tax dollars to revitalize areas like Highland Park only to put a hut encircled by a chainlink fence in the middle of the park.
“Absolutely everyone wants this Google Fiber or fiber networks in our communities,” she said. “So that is not the question in place. We want it, we just want to make sure where these buildings are going [and] that they are going to be respectful of communities.”
The City has passed the oversight of fiberoptic deployment from its Information Technology department, which has little experience with land use and community engagement, to TCI via a 14-member Fiber Deployment Management Team.
Under his direction, Frisbie told the Rivard Report, the team would ensure involvement from City management, City Council, and communities to prevent another breakdown in communication.
His department would also “do due diligence on the property,” considering whether the project constitutes an acceptable use of space and how it would impact neighborhoods. Future huts will also require approval from HDRC.
In August 2015, Google Fiber announced that San Antonio would become the ninth Fiber City in the U.S., with AT&T building its own version of super fast internet shortly after. Because of AT&T Fiber’s existing infrastructure, it has outpaced Google in bringing a small portion of its network into operation. Two other Fiber Groups, Zayo and Contrerra, have begun building networks of their own, which they will lease to other service providers.