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In Baltimore, overhead wires present a tangle of issues

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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