Because city officials wanted it as part of a new franchise agreement, Comcast has been making its way through Philadelphia since December drilling gray boxes full of wires on customers’ houses. Many times these boxes are attached to the front of a house, easily visible. The only way for a Comcast customer to opt out is to respond to a notice that is supposed to appear in the neighborhood a few days before the planned installations. When someone opts out, Comcast is not supposed to drill holes into the facade of a house and install the box.   

Except sometimes Comcast — or more precisely, contractors working on the cable behemoth’s behalf — still does. 

That’s what happened to Patrice Malkowski. She and her fiance live on the 1300-block of Palmer Street in Fishtown. They received the notice on the Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend — Malkowski happened to stop at home before they left for the beach — and found out they had to respond by Tuesday. They called before the deadline. Then, earlier this week, Malkowski returned from her work as a teacher to find a gray box sticking out on the front of her brown brick house.     

“I’m like,” said Malkowski, “‘my house was built in 1920. How are you going to fix this, are you going to repaint my whole house? Come with brown paint.’”

She’s one of several people in the Riverwards area who have contacted Billy Penn with complaints since we published an article last month about why Comcast is installing the boxes. Others say they didn’t receive a notice and had no opportunity to opt out. Warned or not, many are unhappy with the look of a “hideous gray box” bolted by a crew of independent contractors to the fronts of houses in their neighborhoods.

Walking around Fishtown, you see the boxes everywhere. In the half-block area on Thompson between Palmer and Cabot, seven are visible, including three on the building that contains Towners Juicery and one on the side of Interstate Drafthouse.

Comcast said the boxes are used to protect wiring from weather and children, and that most people have told the company the boxes improve the aesthetics of their houses. Lisa Solis, who lives on the 2000-block of Memphis Street, doesn’t share that reaction.

“I feel like they’ve blighted the neighborhood,” she said. “You have these beautiful rowhomes that have been up for 120 years, and Comcast just drills them.”

Solis said no one on her block received the notice. Those with Comcast all came home one day and were “shocked” to “find those things installed.”  

Solis blames city government for changing its practices for Comcast. The City of Philadelphia has a rowhouse manual explaining best practices for taking care of rowhouses. One point it makes is to place satellite dishes on roofs and away from street view, calling them “unsightly.” In 2012, City Council passed a bill preventing satellite dishes from being placed on the front of homes. And now, because of the city, here Comcast is installing gray boxes about the same size as satellites on the front of rowhouses, standing out amid the multicolored hues seen throughout Fishtown.

Mike Dunn, deputy communications director for the Mayor’s Office, said the city identified national code compliance issues before signing its franchise agreement with Comcast last year, and this “street-by-street” cleanup process is part of the compliance process. The box, he said, is a “separate but simultaneous” action not required by code.  

The boxes cover a few inches of wiring, at a coupling point. Comcast said they place them where the line of cable from a pole meets someone’s house, which is often at the front.

Malkowski found the box on her house wasn’t exactly sturdy.

“I literally touched it, and it fell off,” she said. “The cover fell off. It’s supposed to protect from the weather? In two weeks when the kids get home from school they’ll knock it off and see they all are falling off.”

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Jeff Spiker, who lives on the 700-block of Belgrade, found the notice in his front yard, not on his door.

“I casually read it,” he said. “It said they’re doing this wire repair and then cable for an hour. Nowhere does it say about drilling into my house, let alone boxes.”

The workers bolted the box directly next to his front door. After explaining the situation to Comcast, workers removed the box on Spiker’s house but left behind holes visible in his stucco.

Comcast Box
Credit: Jeff Spiker
Comcast Box 3
Credit: Jeff Spiker

“They said it’s their protocol,” Spiker said. “It’s unbelievable, the most convenient spot where the connection is is chest high (next to the front door). Your protocol is screwed up then because you’re going around vandalizing houses.”

Comcast was scheduled to remove the box on Malkowski’s house Thursday evening. Solis said she was fortunate that the independent contractors stopped their work halfway on her house. She noticed the box on her house and called Comcast. After a series of calls in which she says she was routed to operators in the Philippines, she finally connected with somebody who knew what was happening. The next day two workers moved the box to an alleyway.  

There’s no way they could be doing this in Queen Village or Society Hill,” Solis said. “I would like to see them go through a hoity-toity neighborhood and crap up the front of their houses.”

But Comcast has to go to those neighborhoods. By the end of June 2017, it is mandated to clean up wires in every part of Philadelphia.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...