After four equipment fires in two years, including a Christmas Day 2007
explosion in Wisconsin, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T message board) says it is no longer
comfortable with the batteries that provide backup power to thousands of its
equipment cabinets in neighborhoods all over the U.S.
"Following incidents involving batteries used in AT&T Uverse network cabinets,
the company is replacing 17,000 similar batteries, all manufactured by Avestor,"
writes an AT&T spokesman, in an email to Light Reading.
"Normally, we would work with a vendor to diagnose problems and develop
solutions. We cant do that in this case because Avestor 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 quickly as possible," the
AT&T says it has no immediate guess as to how quickly it can replace all those
batteries. The carrier also declined to speculate on the costs of such an
A company spokesman does note, however, that AT&T stopped deploying Avestor
batteries during the first quarter of 2007. The company announced a new battery
supplier in July 2007. (See AT&T Eyes Batteries in Explosion Probe.)
Whatever the timing and cost, it wont be trivial, according to industry analyst
Kermit Ross, principal of Millenium Marketing.
"Its no small task to change out the batteries in thousands of remote cabinets,
especially when many of them are already powered up and handling working Uverse
subscribers," Ross says. "It looks like a multimilliondollar job, considering
the cost of replacement batteries plus the labor to install them. Theyll
probably need to change the wiring to the batteries, too."
Bad battery background
AT&Ts troubles with Avestor surfaced in October 2006, when an equipment cabinet
exploded in a suburban Houston neighborhood, startling homeowners and ripping
out a sizable chunk of fencing from one elderly couples yard. (See AT&T
Investigates DSLAM Explosion.)
In January 2007, another incident occurred just 20 miles away from the first
one. This time the cabinet caught on fire, though that was quickly extinguished.
However, the concerns about the safety of the batteries powering the cabinets
kept growing. (See AT&T Confirms Second VRAD Fire.)
Following the first two Houston incidents, AT&T hired a leading scientific
consulting firm to investigate the cause of the October 2006 equipment cabinet
explosion and the January 2007 equipment fire.
The consulting firm, Exponent, concluded that the problems were caused by
manufacturing defects, that the batterys safety features and overall design
were "sound," and "concluded that the risk of hazardous failures with this
battery is as low, if not lower, than the risk with alternative batteries." (See
AT&T: Defect Caused VRAD Explosion.)
Light Reading requested a copy of the Exponent report from AT&T, but has not yet
But wait... theres more
AT&T now admits it had two more incidents before the end of 2007 one small
fire in an equipment cabinet and one cabinet explosion. The small fire occured
in one of AT&Ts cabinets near Cleveland, the carrier says, though it wont
elaborate on the location.
But on Christmas Day, a cabinet at the corner of 64th Street and North Avenue in
Wauwatosa, Wis., exploded and burned violently, according to city officials and
a blog post on SaveAccess.
Local officials there used Light Readings reporting on the earlier cabinet
fires to learn how Avestors lithium metal polymer batteries had been a factor
in previous AT&T equipment cabinet incidents. (See Exclusive Photos: Fire to the
In the Wauwatosa fire, the main cabinet door was "displaced and landed about
five to six feet southwest of the cabinet," according to Assistant Chief Jeffrey
S. Hevey, Wauwatosas fire marshal, who spoke with Light Reading on Monday.
Hevey reckons the cabinet door, which probably weighs 50 to 60 pounds, was blown
off during the cabinets explosion because the "bolts and rivets were sheared
off cleanly," which suggests "a sudden, powerful displacement."
The cabinet that exploded in Wauwatosa sat next to a twostory office building
with an exterior brick wall, so the building only suffered water damage (as the
fire was extinguished) and some melted vinyl shutters as a result of the fire.
Though companies transporting Avestor lithium metal polymer batteries are
required to adhere to special hazardous material (hazmat) procedures, Hevey says
the scene of the fire wasnt treated as a hazmat fire because, "basically, we
didnt know much about it."
Wauwatosa residents report that AT&T moved quickly on the scene, clearing the
debris and installing a new cabinet within seven hours of the explosion.
Now, all the controversy surrounding AT&Ts cabinets has come full circle. The
batteries, once deemed to be safe and sound by independent experts, have failed
at least four times now, and the carrier has committed to continuing its removal
and replacement of the 17,000 Avestor batteries spread out across its network.
On the one hand, AT&T pushed past the experts and is addressing a potentially
huge public safety risk. "As we gained experience with these batteries, we felt
that they no longer met our stringent safety and performance criteria," an AT&T
spokesman told Light Reading on Monday.
On the other hand, Millennium Marketings Ross says the carrier could have acted
more quickly: "It would have been much less disruptive and costly to have
addressed this problem a year ago, when it first cropped up."
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