AT&T U-verse Doomed?

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Tom Keating
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AT&T U-verse Doomed?

AT&T logoMany have heard of the difficulties in implementing AT&T's U-verse IPTV service. AT&T's U-verse network is actually a fiber/copper hybrid, which pulls fibers to 3,000 to 5,000 feet from the homes they serve, where it then connects to mini-DSLAMs called "52B" boxes and then it runs copper the last mile to the home. This hybrid approach is a bargain when compared to the $20 billion Verizon is spending to build-out fiber all the way to the home. This hybrid fiber/copper approach gives AT&T a 20Mbps+ link to customers, enough to offer high-speed Internet, VoIP, and the company's IPTV service. The problem is getting towns to grant public right of ways for these massive 52B boxes, which hold DSLAMS, batteries, and cooling gear in rugged, weatherproof cases. Many towns objected or wanted AT&T to sign video franchise agreements. Lawsuits were filed, including cable companies that want to classify U-verse service as a "cable service" to force AT&T to abide by the same build-out rules, which has drastically affected U-verse deployment . In addition, the IPTV service uses proprietary set-top boxes from Microsoft, which had their own share of problems - mostly software related.

On top of all this, a new IPTV standard (DVB-IPI) is about to be ratified (later this month) by the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) standards body.  This standard takes a very different technical approach than the strategy embodied in the Microsoft solution that AT&T has implemented, and addresses many of the inherent challenges with IPTV, including quality of service, scalability and fast channel change times. Which reminds me, I really hate the slow channel changing times on satellite TV. I wish the set-top boxes would buffer the next channel UP and the next channel DOWN, so at least changing up or down one channel is fast.

In any event, The DVB-IPI standard is based largely on a hybrid of well-established forward error correction (FEC) technology from Digital Fountain called DF Raptor and a public domain technology known as Pro-MPEG COP3.  These technologies are currently being evaluated by most IPTV providers in the U.S. and elsewhere.  Several new deployments using this technology are expected to be announced later this year. According to Rose Anne Raphael, a representative of Digital Fountain, "Whatever the actual problems in the AT&T/MS deployments (since we're not part of these deployments, we have no firsthand knowledge), the strategy employed is one that inherently poses scalability problems and bucks certain foundation assumptions on which IP networks and broadcast architectures are based."

Could this new standard make AT&T's and Microsoft's gamble on their own proprietary technology be the nail in the coffin for U-verse? Certainly, a standards-based approach will eventually result in lower costs to deploy due to economies of scale when multiple vendors all use the same technology. This could give AT&T/Microsoft's competitors a cost advantage. Who would have thought that mega-titans AT&T and Microsoft would bet on the wrong horse using proprietary technology? Wait a minute, AT&T and Microsoft are the KINGS of proprietary technology, so I shouldn't be surprised. The difference is that 20 years ago you could get away with it - now with open-source and standards along with a global economy, a standards-based approach is the only way to go.

Update (I had some other thoughts and feedback from users)
One person emailed me and wrote:
Read with great interest your comments about the possible doom of U-verse. Taking those concerns into account, would you recommend it to a consumer like me who is considering switching from Comcast to U-verse if and when it becomes available on the west side of Indianapolis? The cost and channel availability seem to have cable beat by a mile, but your technological concerns may trump other advantages.

I'd appreciate your assessment on whether consumers should proceed to "sign up" for this new service.

I responded:

Put to you this way. If I could get U-verse in my area, I'd do it. Yes, I knocked AT&T for not meeting their target goals, as did many media outlets. While I think AT&T & Microsoft were perhaps 1-2 years too early with their proprietary technology, it is still a good solution.I'm just not a fan of proprietary solutions. AT&T and Microsoft have had a bumpy road, but I think AT&T & Microsoft have worked out most of the kinks.

Also, I am the least fan of cable. They are overpriced on everything. When I looked into Cablevision's Optimum Voice I believe it was like $39/month. Their broadband was like $45/month. And to get the channels I wanted, it was like $55/month for a grand total of around $139 for the "Triple Play" package. On top of that, the number of HDTV (high-definition) channels was only like 4 and of course, that was an additional $15/month.

I personally switched to DirecTV satellite, which is better than cable, but isn't a perfect solution either - since I then had to also sign up for AT&T DSL + AT&T Unlimited Voice. So I have two separate providers - a Single Play (DirecTV) and a Double Play (AT&T), which no doubt isn't the most cost effective. I just can't get U-verse or even the competing Verizon FiOS (fiber) solution in my area. I'd take either one. Both AT&T and Verizon are building out their networks as fast as they can - but not fast enough for my tastes.

So if you can get Triple play - voice, video, data using AT&T U-verse, with more HDTV channels and super-fast Internet, I say go for it!

AT&T U-verse is in Stamford, CT, which is where my boss, Rich Tehrani lives. I told him they're offering U-verse in his area. Of course, if he gets this cool Triple Play package before I do, I'll be quite jealous and will be forced to bitch & whine how come AT&T isn't offering U-verse in my neighborhood area.U-verse not in area Maybe I'll see if Verizon FiOS is available in my neighborhood.

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