RICHMOND, Va. - In Pat Wilcox's yard, Verizon workers laying the groundwork for a revolution in communications quickly turned their efforts to a more pressing project: putting out a fire they sparked by crossing two electric wires.
By the time firefighters arrived, the wind-whipped flames had engulfed overhead utility lines and melted a chain-link fence.
"There wasn't much anybody could do till the fire department got there," said Wilcox, whose son's canoe was ruined in the March blaze in suburban Richmond. "It was burning so hot."
The damage bills won't be the last paid by Verizon Communications Inc. as it continues with its largest-ever construction project, which involves replacing a copper-wire network with fiber-optic cables.
New York-based Verizon is spending billions on the upgrade so its network can deliver video on demand and hundreds of channels of high-definition television, as well as Internet connections hundreds of times faster than most broadband lines. So far, the path to the future has been marked by more than a few ruptured utility pipes, split cables and dug-up driveways.
Verizon officials acknowledge startup problems with their FiOS project, but they add they have seen a dramatic decline in the number of damage incidents since it began in 2004.
"It was definitely growing pains for us," said Chris Creager, Verizon senior vice president for operations in the mid-Atlantic region.
Some officials and utilities agree that Verizon's performance has improved, but they add this often came after stern warnings, halted jobs and stiff penalties. Others say complaints, even if fewer in number, are to be expected wherever the project moves and especially in communities with mostly underground pipes and cables.
"They want to do a lot of work quickly and that's where the problems start," said Thomas Rawls, a professional engineer in the public works department of Hillsborough County, Fla., which ordered Verizon to temporarily stop work after a series of waterline breaks in 2004.
Verizon's project has forced communities to hire people to monitor work and to protect their facilities — such as electric, gas and water lines.
Added work for public officials
Rawls, for instance, hired 10 temporary inspectors for about $500,000 a year and a consulting firm for another $150,000. In Anne Arundel County, Md., where Verizon hit hundreds of underground lines in its first few months of construction last year, three additional inspectors were hired, said Alex Baquie, a local public works official.
At one point, Verizon was striking 10 or 11 lines per 10,000 feet — a common industry measure. To slow the company down, the county twice reduced the number of permits issued to Verizon to dig along municipal rights of way. It also began holding monthly performance meetings. Those steps have helped, and Verizon's strike rate has declined to about 2 per 10,000 feet.
"It's a huge burden," Baquie said. "In addition to my normal work, I've had to become a project manager for Verizon's fiber-optic expansion."
In Virginia, damage to underground lines has declined dramatically from a peak of 247 incidents last August to 86 in May, according to figures Verizon gave the state.
Regulators learned that some of Verizon's contractors had started digging even when other utilities had not yet marked the locations of their underground lines. In Virginia Beach, a crew had been plucked from the street and provided little or no training. Their supervisor was found sleeping in a hotel room.
Massoud Tahamtani, director of the State Corporation Commission's utility-safety division, said the agency charged up to $2,500 per violation, though some fines were reduced after contractors agreed to train workers and use less intrusive excavation methods.
Not all the damage can be blamed on Verizon — or its contractors. Forty percent of gas-line damage in Virginia, for example, was caused by the phone company's contractors, who do almost all the underground work. But about 28 percent resulted from failures by utilities to properly locate their own lines. In the remaining cases, no one was assessed blame.
Critics, cable companies slam Verizon's performance
Some remain unimpressed with Verizon's performance.
On Long Island, N.Y., local officials have criticized Verizon for leaving bumps and holes in roads, creating traffic problems and ignoring community aesthetics.
In Malverne, Mayor Anthony Panzarella ordered Verizon to stop work after it arrived in the Long Island village with no notice last year, its trucks blocking intersections. The state overruled him.
Next, Panzarella argued with the company over a big telecommunications box that appeared in front of a park.
"I told them that if they put anything in my village I didn't like, I'd have public works remove it," said Panzarella, who added that Verizon raised the box on a pole above eye level to help resolve the complaint.
Not surprisingly, cable companies have few nice things to say about Verizon.
Jim Gordon, a Comcast Corp. spokesman, says its cables in Maryland have been cut 4,700 times since May 2005, affecting service to 50,000 customers and causing $1.3 million in direct damage. The company has seen fewer problems in Virginia, partly because the state has stiffer regulations and enforcement, he said.
Verizon's Creager said Comcast has had trouble finding and marking its underground lines. He said Comcast's complaints should be taken in context of the larger picture: competition from Verizon's FiOS TV service, now available in parts of Virginia, Maryland, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and California.
Overall, he said, Verizon's performance has improved thanks to better cooperation with utilities and municipalities. Verizon has also added more compliance inspectors and fired some contractors. The company said it could not provide total damage estimates.
Some local officials and residents are taking the damage in stride.
"On all major construction jobs like this, it's unrealistic to think you'll go through the project without damages," said Doug Hilkey, traffic operations director for Fort Wayne, Ind., where the project has run relatively smoothly.
The Wilcoxes and their next-door neighbors, whose property was also damaged in the Richmond fire, were understanding, too. It helped that Verizon promptly cleaned up the mess and reimbursed them.
Likewise, John Jackson of Carrollwood, Fla., said he didn't mind that the Verizon project resulted in a damaged sewer line in January, causing his toilets to overflow. "I was just so happy to have it fixed," he said.
Jackson, a retiree, said Hillsborough County repaired the damage and re-sodded his lawn. Verizon got the bill.