Turns out that snarl is hard to un­tan­gle

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Rodricks dro­dricks@balt­sun.com

At the in­ter­sec­tion of util­ity and aes­thet­ics, I see a big ball of black wire that looks like it could sud­denly spring to life and slither through the sec­ond-floor win­dows of a row­house to trap its prey.

Par­don my Harry Pot­ter­ish imag­i­na­tion. But maybe you’ve seen what I’m talk­ing about: Piles and knots of over­head ca­bles that carry TV pro­gram­ming, Wi-Fi and tele­phone ser­vice into Bal­ti­more homes. They lurk in rear al­leys, in back­yards, even over side­walks.

In old cities like Bal­ti­more, peo­ple have been liv­ing un­der wires for sev­eral gen­er­a­tions, more so since the ad­vent of the in­ter­net, so there’s noth­ing new here. We have grown used to over­head wires. We have lost sight of their un­sight­li­ness. Util­ity beat aes­thet­ics decades ago. But here’s the thing: The wires have mul­ti­plied. Old wires ap­pear to co-ex­ist with new wires now. When one cable line goes off — be­cause, say, a cus­tomer switches ser­vice — an­other even­tu­ally takes its place, and the dor­mant wire is left be­hind, and on and on, un­til a util­ity pole in an al­ley in Rem­ing­ton looks like the Whomp­ing Wil­low at Hog­warts.

I’ve re­ally no­ticed this only re­cently, at row­houses I’ve vis­ited over the last few months — sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of wire, a lot of it snipped and ap­par­ently use­less, coiled and snarly, hang­ing and dan­gling, a real eye­sore.

I as­sume the peo­ple who live in such neigh­bor­hoods are happy to have cable ser­vice and ac­cept the ugly piles of black wire that crown their back­yards and al­leys.

But I’ve come along to­day to ask the ques­tion about what ap­pear to be left­over wires: Who is re­spon­si­ble for re­mov­ing them?

Cer­tainly one of the many com­pa­nies that at­tach their lines to BGE or Ver­i­zon poles must take some re­spon­si­bil­ity for this. A snip here, a snip there — a trim would do the old neigh­bor­hood good, right?

“It’s a com­plex ques­tion,” a help­ful man named Juan Alvarado de­clared when I spoke to him Tues­day.

Alvarado is di­rec­tor of the Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, Gas and Water Di­vi­sion of the Mary­land Public Ser­vice Com­mis­sion, and he’s quite fa­mil­iar with the is­sues of messy and low-hang­ing wires. In fact, prompted by a leg­isla­tive ef­fort in An­napo­lis, the PSC staff re­cently un­der­took a study of util­ity lines and what the state might do when they be­come a tan­gled mess.

The mat­ter is com­pli­cated. For one thing, fed­eral law cov­ers util­ity poles and forms the base­line reg­u­la­tion for what at­taches to them and how com­pa­nies use them.

At the state level, Alvarado says, the main con­cern with util­ity lines is whether they pose a haz­ard to public safety. The PSC, he says, is not as con­cerned with aes­thet­ics: “We don’t have au­thor­ity over that.”

And “aes­thet­ics” would be the only rea­son to force cable or tele­phone com­pa­nies to clean up their messes.

But even that’s com­pli­cated. Lines that look in­ac­tive might be used in the fu­ture. And those that are dor­mant might be left in place for good rea­son: Com­cast can run a new line to a house, but its in­staller can’t re­move a Ver­i­zon line.

“They can’t cut a line that doesn’t be­long to them,” Alvarado says. And so, an is­sue as tan­gled as the wires. We would need a van full of cable guys from each com­pany to travel around city and sub­urbs, sort­ing out each tan­gle, cut­ting any un­nec­es­sary lines. And there would prob­a­bly still be a mess.

If we re­ally cared about this — clean over ugly, aes­thet­ics over mere util­ity — we would have to in­sist that the wires be buried and the poles re­moved, and be ready to pay for it.

JIM BURGER

Un­used cable and tele­phone wires wrapped around a pole in Ham­p­den add an un­sightly ac­cent to the neigh­bor­hood’s ap­pear­ance.

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