In AT&T fiber project, worker pays a steep price: amputation of finger

VIDEO: Derek Mims had his fingers crushed in a ditch-digging machine while installing fiber cables for AT&T contractor, Synchronicity LLC. Mills is worried the company will not pay medical bills associated with the loss of fingers.
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VIDEO: Derek Mims had his fingers crushed in a ditch-digging machine while installing fiber cables for AT&T contractor, Synchronicity LLC. Mills is worried the company will not pay medical bills associated with the loss of fingers.
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Cut gas lines, dug-up yards: Google Fiber, AT&T construction ‘not pretty’

December 26, 2016 02:55 PM

Damaged gas lines. Cracked water mains. Buckled pavement. Dug-up yards. Bulky boxes.

As Google Fiber, AT&T and other competitors race to bring faster internet connections to Charlotte, residents are increasingly complaining about the damage and inconvenience caused during construction.

City officials and many residents embraced plans to build out the new technology, which promises quicker internet connections, faster movie downloads and new competition for service. But the path to progress has been painful for residents who have seen the work play out in the city right-of-way crossing their yards.

Calls to the city with questions and complaints about fiber construction have been on the rise since this summer, according to city data. And since July 2015, Charlotte officials have asked contractors working for Google, AT&T and others to reimburse the city more than $630,000 for repairs to water lines and other city property.

“Retrofitting a community with 21st century infrastructure and technology is tough,” said Phil Reiger, assistant director of Charlotte’s Department of Transportation.

Over the past two years, contractors hired by telecommunications firms have been building out these networks in the city right-of-way, which starts at the curb and extends about eight to 10 feet into a resident’s yard, Reiger said. They must receive permits to do this work from the city.

AT&T announced it was bringing its high-speed broadband network to Charlotte in July 2014, not long after Google Fiber signaled it was looking at the city. The fiber-optic network, which offers upload and download speeds up to 100 times faster than current broadband service, made its debut in June 2015, but work continues as the company expands service.

Google confirmed in January 2015 that it was coming to Charlotte, and construction is now well under way. In July, the company said customers in the Highland Creek neighborhood could start signing up for service, with more neighborhoods to come.

In recent years, the city’s other big broadband provider, Time Warner Cable, has also been making upgrades to its network to increase speeds. The company is in the process of converting to the Spectrum brand after its sale this year to Charter Communications.

The companies acknowledge installing their networks can be disruptive, but say they are working hard to minimize problems.

“Google Fiber is undertaking one of the biggest and most complex infrastructure projects in Charlotte history,” Google said in a statement. “We want to be good neighbors, so we’re doing everything we can to prevent unnecessary disruptions and resolve issues quickly. Google Fiber and our contractors take all construction-related incidents very seriously.”

AT&T said its goal is to minimize disruptions and keep residents informed on its construction progress. “If construction-related issues do occur we work quickly to resolve and restore any impacts from our work,” a spokesman said.

‘Nightmare for our residents’

From January through November, the city has received 250 calls to its 311 line from residents inquiring or complaining about fiber construction. That’s a small percentage of its total calls, but the numbers have been on the rise since July, peaking at 42 in October.

A call sheet shows the complaints range from cut gas lines to trampled yards to muddy roads to truck-clogged streets to buckled driveways. One caller thanked the city for mending water lines so quickly.

“Google Fiber is out destroying everything, and CLT water is working hard to make repairs,” the resident told the 311 representative.

In the Stonecroft neighborhood off Colony Road in south Charlotte, contractors working for AT&T have severed gas lines, cracked water mains, damaged irrigation lines and cut phone and cable lines, said Kim Schineller, who is president of the neighborhood’s homeowner’s association.

“It has quite frankly been a nightmare for our residents,” Schineller said.

Schineller said AT&T has been hard to get in touch with during the ordeal, but that the contractor, Ansco & Associates, has been a little more responsive. Residents are still dealing with yard problems, high water bills and potentially irrigation issues that could surface in the spring, she said. Ansco declined comment.

Stonecroft resident Karl Kleiderer said he hasn’t suffered as much as neighbors who lost water service, but he did have his natural gas knocked out. He handed out Gatorade to tired Piedmont Natural Gas workers who were re-lighting water heater pilot lights around the neighborhood.

Kleiderer became particularly frustrated in recent weeks when contractors came back to do work in his yard for a second time.

“They threw down some straw with some seed,” he said. “I don’t know who thinks that is going to germinate and regrow in December. It’s going to look like that until the springtime.”

In the Selwyn Farms neighborhood, Sara Harrison said she discovered workers digging a large hole not far from her front door. They were preparing to install a box for Google Fiber about two feet high and three feet wide.

She complained to the city, who said there had been a mistake with the permit. It was supposed to be a smaller box in a more out-of-the-way location.

“It was a very stressful couple of days when they were digging up my yard,” Harrison said. “It has been a process, but I am confident they will take care of it.”

After contractors installed Google Fiber in his Derita-area neighborhood, Joshua Spence said water bills at his home and at some of his neighbors started to spike. One bill was nearly $300, up from about $75 a month. Spence noticed other people complaining about similar problems on the Nextdoor social network app.

The city has told Spence that there isn’t a problem with the meter, so he suspects a water line has been damaged between the street and his home. He has been in contact with Google, but doesn’t know if they will reimburse him for the $2,000 estimated repair bill.

“Nobody had any issues before this,” Spence said.

More work ahead

When city property is damaged, Charlotte seeks reimbursement from contractors, including for overtime that it pays workers, Reiger said. Of the $633,490 the city has sought from contractors since July 2015, Google Fiber accounted for 76 percent of that amount, with Ansco (21 percent) and AT&T (3 percent) comprising the rest.

Piedmont Natural Gas, now a unit of Duke Energy, said it responds to all cut gas lines immediately and typically restores service in hours. So far this year, it has handled 3,500 incidents involving third-party digging, which includes all types of construction.

“Anytime you see an increase in construction activity there is a correlated increase in third-party damage to our system,” said Piedmont spokeswoman Loree Elswick. “We’ve definitely seen that, particularly in 2016.”

The company also seeks reimbursement for any damages it suffers from contractors, she said.

The work isn’t ending any time soon. Google Fiber hasn’t said when it will be done with construction, but plans to build a network to cover all of Charlotte. In November, AT&T said it will expand its GigaPower service to other areas in the the Charlotte region, including parts of Belmont, Cornelius and Mint Hill.

Reiger, the Charlotte transportation official, encourages residents to contact the city at its 311 line, so it knows about problems. He also asks that residents show patience as the work continues.

“I think what we are seeing is just the frustration that comes with this type of work,” he said. “I am absolutely empathetic. It’s not pretty.”

Rick Rothacker: 704-358-5170, @rickrothacker

Who should you call?

If fiber installation is causing problems in your neighborhood, the city of Charlotte says to call 311 for assistance. Google also has a hotline at 877-454-6959. AT&T said it lists a phone number on the door hangers it uses to alert residents of upcoming work.

Rick Rothacker