We’re going to take a departure from my normal fare of human resources topics and talk about my experiences switching to AT&T U-Verse, AT&T’s Television Over IP (TVIP) service to compete for home television service.  I’ve been with DirecTV for over 5 years, and we even moved with them when we moved from Gulfport, Mississippi to Alpharetta, Georgia in 2007.  When we went with DirecTV in 2005, we didn’t have an HDTV, so we just went with the standard service.  Simple momentum kept us on that service, even after we got an HD television in early 2006.

The main reason we went with DirecTV back then was so I could subscribe to the NFL Sunday Ticket.  But that fall football season I was traveling too much (even on weekends) to fully enjoy it, and it seemed like a waste.  Momentum being a powerful force, we’ve never subscribed to the NFL Sunday Ticket.

A couple of weeks before Christmas my son and I went to the local Alpharetta AT&T store to get some new cell phones as Christmas presents.  While we were there, the salesguy did a great job of stirring up some interest in U-Verse by giving us a demo and enticing me with some special offers; consolidating our home Internet and television service, and ditching the oh-so-old-fashioned home phone line made some financial sense (saving about $50 a month).  But the salesguy did a terrible job and killed my interest when I asked him about the wiring I’d need in my house.

A little backstory…the day that we got DirecTV back in 2005 I was traveling and wasn’t at home.  When I got home I was horrified at the cabling job that they had done, which amounted to (no exaggeration here) draping the coax cable around the outside of my house, tacked up here and there to the soffit.  Seriously.  I’d say that it looked like the kind of cabling job a 3-year old would do, but I don’t want to offend 3-year olds.  To DirecTV’s credit, when I complained they sent a technician out to fix the cabling, but I was still left with cabling (more neatly) tacked to my soffit.  

So I was a little sensitive to the issue of cabling when I asked the AT&T salesguy what kind of cabling I needed in my townhouse.  In response he insisted that the system ran on fiber.  Apparantly AT&T drills “U-Verse runs on fiber optic” into their salesguy’s heads because he spoke of it proudly and frequently, insisting that fiber would be run to each of my TVs.  I’m a tech guy, so yes, I understand the massive bandwidth advantage of fiber, but I had 1 really serious problem with it: I don’t have fiber pulled throughout my townhouse and I didn’t relish the idea of having new cable pulled.  And since I live in a 3-story townhouse, I could not imagine how they would be able to cleanly pull fiber to where I have TVs in my house.  Not wanting to repeat the cabling mess from 5 years prior, I dashed the poor salesguy’s hopes in favor of doing more research on my own before I bit off on switching to U-Verse.

So in the ensuing weeks I did some research and came to learn that U-Verse is TV over IP.  And yes, it runs on fiber, but only on fiber to my neighborhood; from there it’s a single twisted pair to my house, and within my house it can run on Cat 5e and/or coax (the salesguys need to be educated on this).  By the way, I find it amazing that all this content is delivered to my house on a single twisted pair of wire.  I also had the chance to read some reviews and came to understand the pros and cons.  It wasn’t that I was particularly displeased with DirecTV, as we’ve had no more problems with the dish and the company than anyone else.  The main drivers for deciding to switch were, in order of decreasing priority:

  • The promise of better Internet service: we’ve had BellSouth DSL since we moved to Alpharetta, and it’s been absolutely terrible, only about 1/4 of the “typical” speed for BellSouth (according to speedtest.net).  TV over IP would require a solid and fast Internet connection to work reliably.  I’ve tried several times to go through BellSouth (yes, now they’re AT&T) customer support, but have never had the “wealth of spare time” necessary to work past their level 1 support.  “Trust me, just send someone out,” never worked with BellSouth.
  • Upgrade to HD: I had looked into it with DirecTV and would have had to pay $5 per set plus upgrade my service package.  With U-Verse it was an additional $10 for the whole house, period.
  • Save some money by consolidating home Internet, television service, and eliminating the phone line.  Like I said, about $50 a month.
  • Pick up a few extra channels.  We went with the “U200” package, which (so far as premium channels, or lack thereof) was the rough equivalent of the package we had with DirecTV.  U200 with U-Verse seems to offer at least 100 more channels than we had before.
  • The elimination of weather-related issues.  To be honest, this wasn’t that major a consideration as I estimate we had weather issues with DirecTV about 4 or 5 times a year, which was about the same frequency that we had outages with our cable provider before that.

So a couple of weeks ago we placed our order and yesterday was the big day.  The day before (Friday) I got a courtesy call from AT&T reminding me that the technician would be at our house between 9am and 11am.  I’ve always hated that indefinite window, so it was starting to feel just like the cable companies.  But then Saturday morning the technician himself called me at 8:00 to say he was on the way.  He was at the front door at 8:30.  I was impressed.

I invited John in and insisted we “plan” the installation.  When I explained that I have a technical background and knew networking, I kinda figured he would be thinking, “Oh no, another ‘expert’ homeowner,” but he was genuinely glad and fed my interest by patiently answering all my questions and explaining everything he needed to do. 

We started by examining the smart panel in my garage closet, where all my home wiring–coax, cat 5e, and phones–are pulled.  He explained that he would need to bring a single twisted pair from our outside service to a Cisco router (they call it the U-Verse Gateway).  This router is then wired to the set-top boxes and also provides secure wi-fi.

We (yes, John and I together) quickly decided it best to locate the gateway in the built-in cabinet in my living room, next to where the main set-top box would go (the main box has the shared DVR).  He would be able to route the incoming twisted pair service along my existing Cat 5e wire to the gateway (no new cabling necessary).  From there would be a direct Ethernet connection between the gateway and the living room set-top box, and the gateway would talk to the other set-top boxes via coax back down to the smart panel in my garage closet and from there to the other set-tops.  The wiring was that simple, and not a spec of new wiring needed.

I broke down the spaghetti wiring of the DirecTV system, took out the DirecTV set-top boxes, broke down my old DSL and wi-fi, and followed John around for about 30 minutes before deciding I was getting in his way more than I was helping.  Just over an hour later the whole system was up and running.

To wrap up the installation, John gave us a quick tutorial on using the remote and using the DVR.  The only disappointment was learning that the remote set-top boxes are not capable of live TV rewinding (only the main box in the living room is) but he assured me that AT&T is working on it.  Considering the remote sets didn’t have DVR service before AT ALL, this seemed acceptable.  This minor disappointement was fully offset by the quality of the job John delivered: for example, even though I told him it really wasn’t necessary, he insisted on wearing protective booties (like surgical gauze over his shoes) when walking throughout our house.  Nice touch.

On the way out, John showed me the smart panel in the garage.  It was amazingly tidy, nothing like the way the DirecTV guys had left it.  The moment he had left, I went back upstairs to check out my new Internet bandwidth: I’m happy to report that I’m now about 50% ABOVE the ISP average.  My home Internet–particularly my VPN connections to my office–is truly zippy.

The principle complaint I’d read about in my pre-installation research was that changing channels on U-Verse was prohibitively slow (like up to 2 seconds to change channels, which would be really annoying for surfing).  That’s not the case in my system, at least so far: changing channels is as fast as DirecTV was, and as fast as cable was before that.  PLUS channel surfing is enhanced with a couple of picture-in-picture features I hadn’t expected at all.

As I’ve only been on U-Verse for a grand total of 1 day, I’ll reserve commenting on the quality and consistency of the service, choice of channels, etc. for a future blog once I’ve had more experience with it.  But so far as the initial installation goes, I give AT&T U-Verse an A+.

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