Special Reports

Utilities work with AT&T to prevent line ruptures during 'fiber boom'

Fiber Boom

EL PASO, Texas - Blazing-fast internet speeds: that is the mission behind AT&T Fiber, previously branded as AT&T Gigapower.

In 2016, the company announced it was installing fiber optic cables so homes, apartments and small businesses across El Paso could have access to faster internet service. An AT&T spokesperson told ABC-7 that service will be available to 50,000 customers in El Paso. According to the AT&T website, the technology is already available in more than 1 million locations in bigger U.S. markets.

The new fiber optic cable will allow consumers download 25 songs in a second, a TV show in three seconds and HD movies in less than 36 seconds, according to according to AT&T's website.

"Fiber optic is a technology that allows for the transmission of light, which carries information, which allows information to be passed from one point to another, which allows information to be read by computers," said Ross Dahman, president of Huntleigh Technology Group, a local internet service provider in the Borderland.

Dahman said AT&T offers capacity on its network, which benefits companies like Huntleigh.

"We use their network, we buy capacity on their network and re-sell it to our customers," he said.

"It's a very good thing for AT&T, and of course, for Huntleigh. It benefits El Paso to be integrated around the U.S. and the rest of the world."

So what benefits will AT&T customers see? The company said it'll help you work more efficiently and access content online a lot quicker, perfect when binge watching your favorite Netflix shows.

Installing the service, however, has not come without concerns.

Last April, ABC-7 reported on a West Side neighborhood where line breaks occurred and residents were frustrated with how long the project was taking.

"I would like them to get out of the neighborhood and fix everything back to the way it was," said Sandy Boswell, whose yard was dug up by contractors.

Later that month, another West Side neighborhood experienced a gas-line break after a resident thought crews were done drilling and decided to wash line markings off the sidewalk. Crews ruptured the lines since there were no markings to guide them.

In September 2017, contractors ruptured a sewer line in Far East El Paso, forcing Socorro Malave out of her home.

"It's very frustrating, it's affecting my health," Malave said. "It is frustrating."

Earlier this year, ABC-7 came across a resident who said AT&T contractors punctured a gas line on her property.

Alan Shubert, vice president of Operations and Technical Services at El Paso Water, said he couldn't speak specifically about the AT&T project, but said there are a variety of reasons why breaks happen.

"Most of the time, it's because whoever it is either missed the marks or didn't pay attention to the marks," Shubert said. "Once in a while, we'll miss a mark."

Shubert said if a contractor, or company, needs to drill into the street or sidewalk, there is a detailed process they need to follow.

"If they need to excavate, for some reason, the law requires they contact us through what's called a one call system," Shubert said. "We go out and you'll see our spray paint marks on pavement, you'll see blue lines and green lines. Blue signifies water, green, sewer. It denotes the location of those lines."

The water utility is working on technology to make the process as accurate as possible.

"It's strictly in the test phase, strictly in the research phase," Shubert said. "But we're interested in advancing that science to do a better job at locating those things before holes are dug."

Christy Penders, communications manager for Texas Gas Service, told ABC-7 the utility holds educational events and provides outreach to stress the importance of calling 811 prior to digging.

Penders said you should always call 811 at least two business days before starting any digging project, regardless of whether you are a homeowner planting a tree or a contractor on a large site. The utilities will come out and mark their lines, free of charge, Penders said. "It is also important to note that in the area around the pipe, you must hand dig to avoid damaging the pipe," Penders added.

Rudy Pino, with the City of El Paso Streets and Maintenance Department, said AT&T did notify them about the project. Despite there being so many utilities intertwined, ABC-7 learned no one with the city is responsible for overseeing the massive project; the city only interacts with contractors.

"They come in and let us know what they're going to be doing, their sub-contractor does," Pino said. "We provide the permit and that's really where it ends. They have to do their job, so it's up to them how long it's going to take, how they phase it."

Pino said if you have concerns, they should be addressed with AT&T directly. "They (AT&T) should address them," Pino said.

According to AT&T, there are dozens of supervisors in the field to ensure its contractors are up to standard. A spokesperson said its contractors are trained to obtain proper permits, closely follow local construction codes and abide by rules. They also notify residents when construction will happen and how to reach them if an issue arises. The internet service provider also tracks damages and reviews the performance of contractors, weeding out poor performers.

The company states that whether large or small, damages impact the public and that is not lost on them. Before beginning a project, they talk with locating firms to provide them with some high-level visibility into where they anticipate completing work on a regular basis. For bigger projects, they typically provide 30 to 60 days notice rather than the minimum 10 day notice.

A company spokesman said if customers have any concerns, they should call this number: 915 599-9865. They should also provide their name, home address, contact phone number, and complaint issue.

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