The Linear Canvas
This journal is about the wrongs and rights of the world, as I see them.

The Linear Canvas

How I didn’t get AT&T U-verse

June 15th, 2008 . by Alexander Fisher

Let me start out by saying that I have been a cable television employee most of my adult life. I worked for  telephone companies for att-u-verse-logotwelve years, but I was involved in microwave video transport. I wasn’t punching down hundred pair cables, although I can.

Recently my employer, a cable company, asked for volunteers to test our new competitor, AT&T U-verse at no charge for one year. Of course, I volunteered immediately. They told me to order the best digital TV package with a DVR, the fastest Internet service and all the pay channels that they offered. (Jealous yet?) The bill would have been around $160 per month.

Here are some highlights (or low-lights) of my AT&T experience…

  • I ordered U-Verse online. There were no issues at that time. My address was found in their serviceable database. I was scheduled for an install Tuesday, May 6 (8-10AM). The order went right through with no difficulty at all.
  • Originally I thought that my company would only pay for the first DVR, but later they made it clear they would pick up the cost of a second box. I called AT&T to add the additional DVR to my order. AT&T customer service told me that I was scheduled for Wednesday, May 7 (8-10AM). I told her that I had scheduled May 6, not May 7. She gave me the impression that it wasn’t the first time that had occurred. She rescheduled me back to May 6.
  • Early Monday, May 5, I got a call from a man at AT&T. He seemed a little frantic  and told me that they were going to have to reschedule my install that was scheduled for today. I told him that I was scheduled for May 6, not May 5. He seemed very happy, saying "We can do that!", and rescheduled me back to May 6.
  • About an hour later, I noticed that my phone had gone dead. Then an AT&T telephone technician came to my door and told me that he had been testing my line for "The other side", meaning U-Verse. I told my wife later that he seemed to have some antipathy towards "The other side" and that knowing the technical limitations of their data services, I thought that he was also trying to tell me I couldn’t get U-verse. He didn’t say that specifically, but when he said that someone from "The other side" would be contacting me about my U-Verse order, I knew that was technician code for something that he personally was not allowed to tell me.
  • About 6 PM Monday, I got a phone call from AT&T U-Verse telling me that unfortunately they could not provide me with U-Verse service because of the distance from the "Main Office" was too great. She said that they are working on a way to make the service work better at longer distances or that they might be retrofitting my area someday. She said "We’ll call you back when we do".
  • About a month later I got a call from an AT&T representative. She told me this was not a sales call and that she just wanted to know why I had canceled my U-verse installation? I was a little shocked that she asked but I said that I hadn’t canceled the order, but that AT&T had canceled it because it wouldn’t work at my house.
  • There was a moment of silence, then she said "Oh!? … We canceled the installation!?" I said yes. There was more silence and then she said thank you and hung up. (left hand, meet the right hand)

I live in a neighborhood that is only about four years old. When I called to get phone service in 2004, they actually had not even released my address to the installation department yet. If AT&T can’t service me, in a new neighborhood as new as mine, they are going to have difficulty attracting new customers everywhere until they upgrade to fiber optics or coaxial. The copper pair networks that they have in the vast majority of their area just cannot handle the traffic that is required for high speed data and video services, alone or together.

I know a person that works for AT&T and he told me a few weeks ago that moral was really low at U-Verse.

A little recent AT&T cable TV history…

In 1984, US antitrust courts split up AT&T aka "Ma Bell", for controlling a monopoly in the telephone industry.  Each of the "Baby Bells" that were created in the divestiture of AT&T remained mostly in the telephone and data businesses.

In the late 1990’s, the former AT&T mid-west division now called Ameritech, started building coaxial networks to compete with the cable television companies for video and data customers. They called this new video business Americast. Part of the reason they got into cable TV was because the home phone business was disappearing because of cell phones and some cable companies were beginning to offer phone services, switched and Voice Over IP (VOIP) and they were feeling the heat of that competition.

At just about the same time, AT&T was becoming the largest cable TV company in the US. They had bought the former TCI cable systems and had partnerships with several other cable TV companies. In some of these systems they began to build switched phone over coaxial networks to supplement their current video and data offerings, sometimes in direct competition with Ameritech and the other Baby Bells.

After a few years, Ameritech was purchased by another Baby Bell, Southwestern Bell Corp., also known as SBC.  Also around that time another former AT&T company, BellSouth, had purchased wireless video distribution systems and was having difficulty making it profitable.  SBC obviously was aware of BellSouth’s difficulties but also just did not see itself as a video company at the time and sold Ameritech’s unprofitable cable TV division as soon as they could to Wide Open West (WOW), for pennies on the dollar.  That left SBC in the phone and data business only.  I suppose many plain old telephone people (POTP), thought there was no future in providing video entertainment, especially over the twisted pair networks that they owned.  It probably seemed obvious to them that fiber optics were the future of both data and television distribution and not coaxial.

During the first part of the 21st century, as the business regulatory rules were loosened by the Bush administration, Ma Bell began reconstituting itself from the ashes of monopoly dissolution. Recently AT&T has been implicated in illegal government wire taps, making me wonder if there was some quid pro quo between them and the administration that is allowing them to reform as one company. Never mind the favoritism the FCC and state governments have shown them over local cable franchising rules, against the wishes of the local authorities and cable companies.

AT&T was acquired by SBC and they promptly sold all of its cable television interests and began reacquiring other pieces of the company that had been split apart by US courts, including BellSouth.  Most of the AT&T cable television assets were acquired by Comcast.  Now it is the dominant cable television provider, along with Time-Warner, in the US.

In 2007, AT&T announced that they would begin sales of their new product called U-verse.  Verizon, another combined Baby Bell company, has also ventured into video with a system called  FIOS.  This was all made possible by the advent of digital television.  Previously the telephone companies biggest problem was bandwidth on their existing main lines and cables to the home.  In the amount of space that previously could have only contained just a couple of analog channels, now many more channels could be digitized and streamed from a network device to a television.  This can also include a set top box with or without a DVR built in. Just like the cable company.

Most cable TV companies, especially in bigger towns, have a bi-directional fiber optic backbones connected to high frequency capable bi-directional coaxial networks to the home. Pretty simple, and it is there now and working well. Having superior networks to AT&T’s, cable companies have the upper hand in most cases. It wouldn’t be any more difficult to transition to fiber to the home for cable companies as AT&T or any other telephone company.

A couple of years ago, AT&T was running fiber optics into new homes in anticipation of their U-Verse system. Because there is still little use for them, so far, they just hang out of the the buildings uncovered. Recently they have switched their video methodology to running coaxial cables instead of the fiber optics into the home, along with some cat5 cables for their existing network.

AT&T’s existing twisted pair cables in most areas are incapable of carrying live channels in the numbers that cable television coaxial network can provide.  It is possible for them to stream a few digital video channels to the home at once.  The one disadvantage that this creates is a possibility for latency (lag) after the customer chooses their program.  I have heard stories about people having to wait a minute or two for their program to appear.  One person said the wait was over 5 minutes. I really don’t think people are used to or willing to wait when they change channels.

Certainly the cause of the latency issue is the copper twisted pair wires that exist in most neighborhoods and homes.  Where AT&T has a 100% fiber optic network, I’m sure it could work fine.  The digital TV interface enclosures AT&T has to install in neighborhoods to facilitate the video switching and streaming, are almost the size of a small building. There have been many homeowners who have complained and some have sued after AT&T put one of these beasts in their yard. The cable companies are accomplishing the same thing with coaxial cables now.

I too realize, the immediate future is fiber optics to the customer’s home or business.  The amount of bandwidth needed to the customers, will be beyond current comprehension in the future. But the easiest way to get there from a copper twisted pair network, to service more people "now", is a fiber-optic backbone connected to a coaxial distribution system, like Ameritech spent so many millions for, ten years ago, only to have SBC throw it away.  I bet at least a few people at AT&T wish they had kept Americast, instead of selling it to WOW, just about now.

One Response to “How I didn’t get AT&T U-verse”

  1. comment number 1 by: Alexander Fisher

    I was sitting at my computer when my wife yelled for me to come upstairs. She said there was an AT&T salesperson at the front door. She said she was trying to tell her that we had been told we couldn’t get U-verse, but she insisted on calling in to verify. She was nervous and kept complaing that my address shouldn’t be on her list if it is not serviceable. I wonder how many more times they will try to sell me this service before they understand I can’t get it. Next time I might just go ahead and sign up to see them go through the motions again.

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