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AT&T Will Replace Batteries After Fires

City officials, long critical of the size and placement of powering cabinets needed to back up AT&T’s U-verse TV video service, now have concerns beyond aesthetics. Sometimes, the cabinets explode.

AT&T acknowledged the problem and said it would replace 17,000 lithium batteries in outdoor cabinets around the country.

“Normally, we would work with a vendor to diagnose problems and develop solutions. We can’t do this in this case, because Avestor [the manufacturer of the suspect batteries] filed for bankruptcy in October 2006 and closed shortly thereafter. As a result, we have decided to move forward with the removal of all Avestor batteries as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement forwarded by Destiny Belknap Varghese, a public-relations consultant with AT&T’s outside communications firm, Fleishman-Hillard. Explosions were reported in Texas, Ohio and Wisconsin last year.

Officials in Wauwatosa, Wisc., are glad they heeded complaints from local residents last year and asked AT&T to move a cabinet from in front of a local home to a location in front of a brick building at 64th Street and North Avenue. An explosion destroyed the cabinet at about 12:30 a.m. on Christmas morning.

City attorney Alan Kesner said the fire caused smoke damage to the brick building, but local fire officials said the damage would have been worse had the building been made of wood.

Kesner said officials had heard about the incidents in Texas, and last February asked AT&T about cabinet safety at a zoning hearing on cabinet placements. The city was assured that the “problem was properly taken care of,” the city attorney said.

Wauwatosa asked AT&T to halt new cabinet placements until an investigation into the fire has been completed, Kesner said.

The steel cabinets house controls and backup power supplies for the video network.

“They’ve been pretty cooperative,” Kesner said of AT&T. “We’re in a holding pattern” regarding the video deployment, he said.

One telecommunications lawyer, Jonathan Kramer of Kramer Telecommunications Law Firm in Los Angeles, advises municipalities to put all telecommunications providers using public rights of way on notice to remove Avestor batteries immediately.

Other cable providers also use battery backups: California, for example, mandates that providers are able to run for at least eight hours without commercial power. Only the Avestor brand batteries have been identified by AT&T to be a problem.

AT&T could experience rollout delays during the replacement process, but Kramer said “convenience does not outweigh public safety.”