TV From the Phone Company

AT&T invades cable's turf with its new and promising U-Verse service.

Viewers use the Web to customize stocks, teams and traffic to be tracked.
Viewers use the Web to customize stocks, teams and traffic to be tracked.

I took the plunge recently and plunked money down for subscription TV, abandoning life with only an antenna. This time, I'm getting the service from the phone company, the newest competitor to satellite and cable companies. AT&T is delivering about 200 channels of TV across the same copper wires that have delivered voice calls for more than a century. Called U-Verse, it's an ambitious effort that just arrived in my neighborhood, part of a steady rollout across AT&T's regions.

So far, the results are impressive. The picture is clear, with high-definition images that are at least as good as what the local cable company offers. The price is good—maybe 10 or 15 percent below what I would pay cable for similar service.

And here's the kicker: It's better than satellite or digital cable in several ways. For one, the channel changes are quicker than with digital cable. It's almost a trip back to old-style TV, where the next channel came up almost as fast as you could punch the remote.

Also, the system has the potential for broad integration with the Internet. That's because the AT&T service, unlike cable or satellite, uses Internet networking to deliver its video service. It's all running on Microsoft-written software.

From what I've seen, the Internet portion is mostly untapped potential. TV viewers can access a few services through the box's menus, such as quick updates on their favorite stocks and sports teams. They can also access AT&T's or Flickr photos. But the Internet services are mostly slow, awkward to use, and not very exciting (Yellow Pages access is hardly stirring).

There have been hiccups. On occasion, perhaps a half-dozen times in a week of trying the system, the image has briefly garbled. Even then it was slight: a mild stutter or a dozen pixels that were slow to update. Also, just getting the service was a challenge. AT&T's site kept telling me U-Verse was not available yet at my address, though neighbors on both sides were told a different story. I finally had to ask AT&T's PR department to intervene.

Because PR was involved, I can't comment too much more about the installation process. It was quick and highly professional. I don't know that I got standard consumer treatment. Neighbors, however, appear pleased with their experience, which presumably came without the PR department's oversight.


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