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10/27/2008

U-verse debuts Monday in Madison

By: Judy Newman, Wisconsin State Journal

Madison will join the U-verse universe Monday.

AT&T's U-verse TV offering is now available here, with digital programming that travels over your phone line.

The system, meant to compete with Madison's only cable company, Charter Communications, as well as with satellite TV companies, "will personalize the way (people) watch TV (in a way) that you will not see other providers offer," said Shelley Goodman, AT&T general manager for Wisconsin and Illinois.

U-verse has several package options with anywhere from 60 to 320 channels. Prices range from $44 a month for 60 channels, TV only, to $154 a month for 320 channels plus the highest-speed Internet service available.

So far, U-verse has 46 high-definition channels, available on some of the packages at no extra charge.

U-verse carries the Big 10 Network — as satellite TV has and Charter recently added — but talks are still in progress to get public interest and local government channels on board.

Some of the non-traditional features of the new service include:

• You can use a computer outside your home, or an AT&T wireless phone, to schedule the system to record programs.

• Up to four programs can be recorded at the same time.

• More than one TV can be watching the same recorded program at the same time, but each viewer controls the recording separately. For instance, one viewer can stop the program to get a snack while another viewer in a different room keeps watching.

• Up to 200 photos can be stored on the system using Flickr.

• You can receive customized weather reports, stock updates and sports scores, including fantasy sports teams.

The DVR, or digital video recorder, is a "game changer in the industry," Goodman said.

U-verse is making its debut today in parts of the Madison area, to as far south as Janesville and Beloit. It's been offered in the Milwaukee area for more than a year and a half, and launched in parts of Green Bay and the Fox River Valley this summer.

But it won't be available throughout the Madison vicinity, especially at the outset. Blaming concerns over competition, AT&T won't say how much of this region or which locations are hooked up, or how long it will take to cover a wider locale.

"We want to get the service to as many customers as possible, as quickly as possible," was all Goodman would say.

Critics have predicted AT&T will "cherry-pick" the wealthier neighborhoods. But AT&T spokesman Chris Bauer said, "That's just simply not true. In our 22-state footprint, we are rolling out (the service) to as many low-income customers as high-income."

To find out if U-verse is available from your home or business, you can go online to AT&T's Web site, www.att.com/uverse, and test your address, or you can watch for the company's advertising campaign, which is expected to include mailings to your home and door-to-door sales.

Some areas that won't be covered are Middleton, Sun Prairie, and a small portion of Madison's Far West Side; the company wants to focus on current customers, those areas have few if any AT&T customers.

U-verse uses Internet protocol technology. That means the programming is carried over the Internet.

Fiber optic cable brings the digitized programs to refrigerator-sized utility cabinets being installed around the area. From those cabinets, the signal travels across copper wire into your home, the same copper wire originally installed to provide simple, voice telephone service. It also is used now for DSL (digital subscriber line) high-speed Internet service.

To receive U-verse, customers have to live within 5,000 feet of a utility cabinet, and each cabinet can serve 200 to 300 customers.

Subscribers to U-verse get a device the size of a hardcover book, called a residential gateway, which takes the signal and routes it to each television's set-top box. U-verse provides the first set-top box for free; each additional one is $5 a month.

Within a household, several people can be watching live or recorded programs on TV while others are, for example, downloading songs or surfing the Internet, without affecting the speed or the picture, AT&T's Bauer said. "The quality should be the same. You should not notice the difference," he said.

Barry Orton, UW-Madison telecommunications expert, said he is not so sure. Cable TV uses coaxial cable that's thicker and more complex than copper wire, and in homes subscribing to cable TV with cable-modem high-speed Internet, the signal is diluted when more activity is going on, using more bandwidth. That slows transmission speed, Orton said.

AT&T says it has 781,000 U-verse subscribers in 15 states and is on target to reach 1 million by the end of the year.

Worldwide, Internet protocol television is expected to reach 19.6 million subscribers, or 1.1 percent of all households in 2008, according to the Gartner global research firm.

Will U-verse win over Madison's cable and satellite customers? Will it result in price wars with cable or satellite companies?

"Our hope, of course, is that the pie grows instead of just taking a slice from Charter," said Brad Clark, manager of Madison City Channel. He said he expects public interest channels to be available on U-verse by the end of the year.

"It will be interesting to see how it plays out and if it results in lower rates. I'll believe it when I see it," Clark said.

Tim Vowell, director of government relations for Charter in Wisconsin, says Charter is ready for the U-verse attack.

"We certainly feel that we're very well positioned to compete effectively against AT&T just as we compete against all other providers," Vowell said.

Charter offers packages online ranging from $49.99 a month, cable TV only, with more than 100 digital channels, to $129.97 a month for cable, Internet and phone service.

"We're confident that our lists of products and services are competitive. We strive to continue to provide excellent customer service and we think that will make the difference in the marketplace," Vowell said.

Orton said heavy sports viewers already have switched to satellite but he thinks U-verse will make a dent in Charter's domination.

"The beach already has softened for them. Now they're going to land the troops. I think the cable industry will find itself in retreat pretty quickly," Orton said.

Source: http://www.madison.com/wsj/mad/top/311392


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