Quick. How can you tell which way is south in Boston? Answer: Just look up to see what direction everybody's satellite TV dishes are pointed.
The proliferation of satellite television from companies like DirectTV and EchoStar has some city councilors here considering an ordinance to minimize the visibility of the dishes in the name of preserving the historic charm of neighborhoods.
Installers often forego roofs and backs of buildings, opting to bolt the receivers near windows facing streets. Rather than reusing or dismantling older dishes, companies usually tack on another dish for each new customer in an apartment. The result, as seen in photos at a city council meeting Friday, are mutliplexes that begin to look like the Star Ship Enterprise.
"The building next to my home, which only has two tenants now who have satellite, has nine dishes, and it's because [of] people who have moved in and out," Gregg Iezza, an East Boston resident, stated at the hearing. "The satellite dishes almost kept us [from moving to] East Boston."
Beantown is the first major city to take on the issue, but it's unlikely to be the last, as gentrifying urban areas grow more sensitive to property values, and as the dishes accumulate with renter turnover. Less clear is whether federal rules allow municipal governments much leeway to regulate the matter.
A 1996 federal law mandated the Over-the-Air Receptions Devices Rule, prohibiting restrictions that cause unreasonable delays or costs, or preclude decent reception. Safety is one exception. Historic preservation is another, as long as the location is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But the industry says exemption doesn't apply to wide areas. "You can't just say, 'Oh that's an historic area of Boston' and then do broad-based legislation that would impede someone's rights to [satellite] programming," said Patricia Sumler of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association. "We are very mindful of the aesthetics issue ... [and] we are willing to help you try and find a solution."
City Council president Michael Flaherty raised the issue after receiving a constituent complaint. He says he was skeptical at first, but after walking with the resident, and hearing from others, he changed his view about the dishes. "This sounds crazy, but now I notice them," Mr. Flaherty says.
Other factors are at play, too, Mr. Flaherty says. "There's been a gentrification of the City of Boston and ... there's a lot of pride in all the neighborhoods of Boston, that may be part of it."
Some are critical of Flaherty's motives. Local bloggers point out he has received contributions in the past 16 months from executives at Comcast Cable, which competes with satellite TV.
Critics also argue that he is targeting immigrants, many of whom subscribe to satellite to get programming from home countries. Flaherty addressed this Friday: "This is not an effort to deny one's access to a satellite TV. It's not aimed at a specific community or demographic."
Flaherty's office received a call of support from a councilman in York, Pa., which enacted restrictions on dishes in April. Historic preservation and aesthetics are concerns for the city of 40,000 where the Articles of Confederation were adopted.
"We're protecting property values and ... neighbors' investment," says Joe Musso, a York councilman.
York's ordinance prevents installation on the front facade of houses if it can be avoided. The rule applies within the historic district, roughly 20 percent of the city. But Mr. Musso says he'd like to extend it citywide.
The satellite TV industry hasn't challenged York's law, though an industry press release takes issue with its legality. The statement notes that not all of the historic district is included in, or eligible for the National Register, and that noncompliance fines of $100 to $1,000 are "excessive and almost certainly would be struck down if challenged."
At the Boston hearing, Ms. Sumler agreed to participate in a joint task force.
She noted problems with basic solutions. Installers are increasingly avoiding rooftops because of liability issues and the higher costs of added install time and cable length. Dishes must point south to receive satellite signals, making some back-of-building mounts impossible. A dish can only be shared with landlord approval. And installers cannot remove old dishes because the original customer owns them.