Texas Bloggers Rant, Rave About U-verse

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A public-relations professional has decided to gain his 15 minutes of fame among the technologically curious by dumping his cable connection and blogging about his experience as an early customer of AT&T Inc.’s U-verse Internet-delivered video service.

He’s not the only one posting his experiences with the product to the Net, but he’s certainly trying to be the most obvious. Alan Weinkrantz of San Antonio said he’s just having fun by describing how he disconnected his three television sets from his Time Warner Cable, called AT&T and asked to be a U-verse tester.

HOLDS NO GRUDGES

“I’m not mad at the cable company. I’m not mad at the phone company,” he said.

He’s just attracted by something new and “cool.” It also helps that the experiment will save him $635 in cable fees during the next five months — and gain him some attention.

He’s not just a man on the street when it comes to technology introductions. He’s the personal publicist to Jeff Pulver, a repeat pioneer of Internet technologies and co-founder of Vonage Holdings Corp., the voice-over-Internet-protocol provider. His firm, Alan Weinkrantz and Co., publicizes technology companies — which AT&T is not, he stresses.

Weinkrantz hooked “$15,000 worth of toys” up to the IPTV service, enjoying a wireless home with the help of Apple AirPort devices to channel content from device to device.

But to hook up to what, for now, is a free service, during AT&T’s test in San Antonio, he had to extricate himself from Time Warner Cable. That meant giving up two products not offered through AT&T: high-definition television and his digital video recorder. He already misses the ability to watch one show and simultaneously store another, he said, but added “I knew what I was getting into.”

Weinkrantz was surprised by the reaction he got from the cable company. He was trying to cancel to go to AT&T and the customer service representative tried to sell him Time Warner Cable’s Digital Phone service instead.

When he made it clear he intended to drop all Time Warner-delivered services, the customer service rep put him on hold for three minutes, and came back with an offer most consumers probably would have taken, he related. The cable company would drop his current bill $147 a month, to $107 a month, a rate they’d guarantee for one year, Weinkrantz was told. In succeeding years, he was told, the rate would increase no more than $5 a year.

“It would take them eight years to get back to what I’m paying now,” he said. (More recently, Weinkrantz called Time Warner to see if he could get an even better price by dropping the U-verse name. “No deal,” he writes.)

Instead, he began his experiment, paying $29 a month for a phone line to enable the U-verse service, turning his main television into a home media gateway with its own IP address.

The product has worked near perfectly, he said. The biggest difference between IPTV and cable so far: Nearly instantaneous channel changes with the AT&T product. He’s noticed a couple of flickers in the programming, but that’s no more than he noticed with his cable service during storms, he said.

But Weinkrantz said he could be AT&T’s worst nightmare in five months if the telephone company doesn’t match cable’s product offerings.

“I miss my HDTV and DVR,” he said. His blog, www.Satechblog.com, began its U-verse discussion May 22.

While he’s raving about the product, at least one other poster is ranting against it. On www.broadbandreports.com, a user who identified himself only as Jwright9 complained on a discussion board that his U-verse connection took three days to install. The San Antonio resident said the AT&T installer “ignored” his integrated local area network, hooked up to his computers and his security cameras. He asserted AT&T techs couldn’t figure out how to correct the problem and called in retailer Best Buy’s troubleshooters, the Geek Squad, to fix the problem.

'GEEK’-PROOF

“A Geek Squad guy and I spent hours undoing and redoing what AT&T did,” the user wrote.

He also appraised the video quality as “sad indeed.” The consumer gets signals that are either heavily pixilated, or gets a green-screen error at least once an hour, he added.

Utilizing the included digital video recorder, “I have recorded six episodes of The Sopranos and several movies and every one of them is full of errors,” he wrote in his post.

“When they come around wanting to charge $1,200-plus a year, I’ll call Dish Network,” the man concluded.

Other cynics posting there criticized AT&T for its lack of commitment to a system-wide buildout. Company officials have publicly stated they will focus on delivering broadband services to “high-value” customers in order to accelerate return on investment.

“If you’re on the wrong side of the telco redline, they’ll offer a pair of rabbit ears, a refurbished [modem] and a second phone line with unlimited dial-up for $40,” one wag predicted.

Wes Warnock, an AT&T spokesman, said he was aware of the tech blog but wasn’t familiar with postings such as those at www.broadbandreports.com. He couldn’t comment on the problems the one user cited, nor would he comment on whether AT&T is utilizing outside contractors to address installation problems.

The feedback from the controlled marketing test in San Antonio is “far and away, very positive,” he said. The company is on track for a third quarter launch in Houston, with service debuting in 15 to 20 markets by the end of this year. He would not specify the markets beyond Houston.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Mark Harrad said win-back and save deals are periodically offered in the San Antonio market. In mid-May, the offer included digital cable with free Showtime and The Movie Channel feeds, plus telephony with features such as on-screen caller ID, for $59.90. A 7 Megabit per second high-speed data service could be added for $29.95. That rate would be good for six months, he said.

In addition to U-verse, Time Warner’s San Antonio competitors include direct-broadcast satellite providers and overbuilder Grande Communications Inc.

SMALL U-VERSE

Because the U-verse market is so small, and users haven’t been asked yet to pay for the service, Time Warner has not felt the need to respond, in pricing or packaging, to that competitor, Harrad said.

With no HDTV or dual-tuner digital video recorder service to offer, U-verse will be at a competitive disadvantage, he said. At AT&T’s U-verse marketing Web site, the telephone company says such products are “coming soon.”

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