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Boston looks to curb clutter of satellite dishes

Ordinance would ban installations facing Hub streets

Satellite dishes dotted a house on Saratoga Street.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Satellite dishes dotted a house on Saratoga Street.

On Saratoga Street in East Boston, satellite dishes sprout like mushrooms, bolted on the facades of row houses in clusters of three, five, and seven. They cling to vinyl siding, dangle from front porches. The gray disks outnumber doorbells on some triple deckers.

“It’s a blight on the neighborhood,’’ said Chuck DiPrima, 49, who lives on Saratoga and had his satellite dish installed out of sight on his roof. “When people move out, they leave the dish there. There are some houses with nine, 10, 12. It’s crazy.’’

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On Thursday, a Boston City Council committee fine-tuned a new ordinance that seeks to clean the satellite dish clutter. The proposal, supported by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, would require the removal of all obsolete satellite dishes. It would also ban new installations from facades and other walls facing the street, unless an installer can prove there is no other place to get a signal. Dishes would have to be placed on roofs, in the rear, or on the sides of buildings.

“If you have a satellite dish and you are a subscriber to a company, you are grandfathered in,’’ said Councilor Salvatore LaMattina of East Boston, who has spearheaded the effort. “Once it is no longer in use, we want it removed, This ordinance will help . . . save the character of our neighborhoods.’’

The full City Council must still vote on the measure. If the ordinance passes, it will raise the ante in a growing national fight between densely populated cities and DIRECTV, DISH, and other satellite companies. The battle reached the Federal Communications Commission in December, when satellite television companies petitioned to stop a dish law in Philadelphia.

Chicago passed a similar measure, which has also been put on hold pending a ruling in Washington. The FCC must decide whether local regulations comport with federal rules adopted in 1996 to protect the rights of tenants and property owners to receive entertainment beamed from above.

The satellite television companies have also asked the federal government to expand their authority to install dishes where they see fit in the name of broadcasting rights and free airways. DIRECTV and DISH declined to discuss the issue. The industry’s trade group, the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, issued a statement but would not address specific questions.

“These ordinances are a terrible idea,’’ the association said. “They single out satellite dishes for unfair treatment. It is hard to understand why a satellite dish is any more ‘aesthetically unpleasing’ than the jumbled mess of coaxial cable TV wires that stream down the front of buildings and homes throughout cities, or the multitude of air-conditioning boxes that stick out of windows.’’

The requirements would increase the cost of satellite television, according to the statement, “because they make dish installation more expensive.’’ On Thursday, a reporter called DIRECTV’s sales hotline and a representative said “installation is absolutely free’’ and that the company would remove a satellite dish at a customer’s request.

A salesman for DISH said Thursday the company would waive the $99 installation fee for customers with good credit, but would not take down an out-of-use dish because once the device was bolted in place, it was “part of the property.’’

LaMattina said the goal of the proposed law is not to drive up costs or limit access to satellite television, but to force DIRECTV, DISH, and other companies to take more responsibility for their equipment.

Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said the administration wants to be careful not to limit residents’ access to an array of television services but said that desire must be weighed against the need to abate visual clutter.

“We are very supportive of seeing how we can cut down on the number of dishes on buildings,’’ said Joyce.

In Boston, just under 27,000 households subscribe to satellite television, which is roughly 10 percent of the city, according to data provided by the satellite television companies to the city. But that figure does not include inactive satellite dishes, some of which are damaged and dangling from buildings.

Federal rules allow local governments to restrict the placement of satellite dishes in historic districts, forcing companies to install the devices on roofs and other out-of-sight locations in Boston’s colonial core.

“We are not having this problem in Beacon Hill,’’ LaMattina said. “Why can’t every other neighborhood be treated the same way?’’

North Dorchester, Mattapan, and East Boston claim the highest concentration of satellite television subscribers, according to the data provided to the city. Each community has large immigrant populations that use satellite dishes as a link to their homelands. For William Alarcon who emigrated from El Salvador five years ago, a dish provides classic Mexican movies on Galavision and Univision.

“I have a hard time understanding English, so I need it,’’ Alarcon said in an interview in Spanish on Saratoga Street, where he lives in a hot-pink building studded with four satellites dishes in the front. “They should leave this to the satellite companies. They know where the best place to put the satellites is.’’

Globe correspondent Alejandra Matos contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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