For months now, Pacific Bell has been digging up portions of Los Angeles in the name of the future. "We promise. It'll be worth it," read the fliers distributed to thousands of residents.
In exchange for the noise and inconvenience, the selected Southland neighborhoods were to be some of the first in the nation to get hooked up to the fabled information superhighway. Then the future got put on hold.
Citing costs, competitive pressures and lack of cooperation from the city of Los Angeles, PacBell last week began shutting down its ambitious advanced communications project here after spending nearly $100 million to get it started.
The company is also curtailing its network construction efforts in Orange County--but will plow ahead in San Diego and San Jose, where it faces a stiffer threat from powerful cable television firms that soon hope to offer local phone service.
PacBell's original plans, announced in late 1993, called for 1.5 million homes in California to be wired by 1996. Among the first communities to be wired were Anaheim, Buena Park, Cypress, Garden Grove, Orange, Stanton and Villa Park.
But so far, the company has run the network through only 330,000 households in the state, including an unspecified number in Orange County, said spokesman Craig Watts. Watts said PacBell expects to complete the wiring of those Orange County cities.
But the pace of that work has been slowed and it is unclear when the project will be finished, he added.
PacBell's abrupt withdrawal from Los Angeles and its cutback in Orange County form a lesson in how quickly the beguiling visions of high-tech can melt into the ether. Other telephone and cable companies nationwide are also scaling back their plans for brave new video systems, their wings clipped by high costs and technology that's not quite ready for prime time.
The retreat is also a pointed reminder that the hallowed telephone industry principle of universal service does not apply to the next generation of telecommunications. Who gets tomorrow's technology first will depend entirely on where companies like Pacific Bell choose to deploy it.
In this case, that means Los Angeles businesses that had looked forward to the competitive advantages of new interactive technology and high-speed Internet access are out of luck.
Residents who had been promised the ability to order movies, interactive games, education and home shopping from their couch may now have to wait indefinitely.
And several hundred workers who left other jobs at the company to be part of the network of tomorrow now face relocation or layoffs.
"It's not going to be in the short term, but we hope at some point to come back and finish the build in Los Angeles," said Steve Harris, vice president for external affairs of Pacific Telesis Corp., PacBell's parent company. "We don't consider it abandoned--we just won't be using it for a while."
Behind construction placards still bearing the message "Bringing You the Advanced Communication Network," phone workers this week were busy mothballing the system, which already passes nearly 75,000 homes.
In the west San Fernando Valley, trenches that were to have held lengths of fiber cable are being filled with concrete. In Inglewood, PacBell technicians are sealing off the dangling ends of thousands of feet of aerial lines strung in recent weeks.
In Calabasas, where nearly 700 homes have been fully wired with the new technology, phone company workers are dismantling the boxes--one near every other home--that would have made the system operable.
"I'm very disappointed," said Calabasas Mayor Dennis Washburn. "This was an opportunity for our community to be in the forefront of new media services. Now it's all dressed up with no place to go."
City officials in Orange County also expressed some disappointment at the slowdown of PacBell's work in their areas. However, Edward Aghjayan, general manager of Anaheim's Public Utilities Department, said that it was not necessarily bad news for his city.
He said Anaheim is currently negotiating with a private telecommunications firm to establish a 50-mile fiber-optic network in the city. Anaheim plans to run the network through businesses and government within 18 months and through residences within five years. The city would generate revenue by leasing space on the fiber-optic lines.
The digital network, a combination of fiber-optic and coaxial cable that was to replace the phone company's copper wires, was touted as a more "intelligent" communications system. In addition to making it possible to offer new services, it would also have alerted the phone company to network disruptions and allowed for clearer sound on routine calls.
PacBell says difficulty in getting the necessary construction permits from the city of Los Angeles contributed to the decision to pull up stakes.