6:00 AM -- As AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) closes in on delivering its U-verse service to 1 million customers this year, it's time to chime in with some suggested improvements to make the service even harder to give up when cable companies start really dropping their prices and becoming more competitive.
Here are my top five ways to make U-verse a little more unleaveable:
AT&T doesn't have any high-definition content available for rent via its video-on-demand (VOD) service. I think the fact that has escaped many is that there is a lot of "widescreen" content available. But after some checking, AT&T has confirmed that all of its "widescreen" content is simply standard-definition fare served up in a more theatrical, 16:9 aspect ratio.
Having HD movies and TV shows on tap makes it harder for folks to spend money elsewhere. By being a video provider, AT&T isn't just competing with cable companies, its competition for a consumer's time and money now includes movie theaters, libraries, Blockbuster, Netflix, and sleep. Besides, more and better VOD choices keep consumers happy with their DVRs longer; the more expansive a TV provider's VOD library, the less hard drive space consumers need to occupy with recorded programs.
More pipe, please
AT&T is able to provide 25 Mbit/s to homes within about 3,000 feet of its video-ready access devices (VRADs), or neighborhood nodes. The carrier allocates up to 10 Mbit/s of that for Internet and data use. What happens to the balance of that pipe when the DVR's not recording and all the TVs are off? Well, nothing. And I don't think there's any good technical reason why folks can't use the remainder of the 25 Mbit/s pipe -- save a little voice overhead for those homes with VOIP service -- when a home's video services are at rest.
AT&T now offers four different flavors of its U-verse Internet service. Why? Maybe it revels in its ability to confuse customer service agents and print reams of mail offering "data upgrades" to everyone who isn't buying its 10 Mbit/s service.
What if, instead, AT&T offered one simple plan (up to 20 Mbit/s of variable, downstream bandwidth; up to 1.5 Mbit/s of upstream bandwidth) for one low price ($40 a month)? That would leave 5 Mbit/s of overhead and would make consumers think twice about defecting to cable.
U-verse TV and Internet bundles are available in 13 states, but did you know that fewer than 20 cities in only nine states have U-verse Voice, AT&T's residential VOIP service? The need to go VOIP is more urgent than ever as the economy is accelerating the rate at which people are giving up their traditional home phone lines. VOIP service is cheaper to provide and less expensive to consumers, too. But, for AT&T, going VOIP could mean using fewer big phone switches in its central offices. The savings in electricity, cooling and, in some cases, real estate, there could help offset the enormous expense it has to shoulder by outfitting its neighborhood nodes with U-verse equipment.
Sharing is caring
I'm looking forward to AT&T's whole home DVR (WHDVR) service, but the rest of the world -- at least Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s FiOS customers, some Charter Cable customers, and some Dish Network customers, to name a few million -- already have access to such a luxury. What a rare few, if any, have is the ability to share digital media files across a home network, without having to add another device to their homes.
Here's how I define media sharing: If a device, any device, runs on batteries or electricity and has a way to store digital files, I should be able to see when it shows up in my home network, view its contents on my TV, and either play or view those digital files via my living room entertainment center or move them to some other digital device on my home network.
If its lab work is any indicator, AT&T is not too far away from making this a reality. But is AT&T really going to do this, or is it hoping a third-party will do the dirty work? It's a fair question because I can see a carrier not wanting to live the nightmare of having consumers calling with support questions about why they can't find that song they just moved from their PC to their iPod via the TV remote.
Raise a ruckus
AT&T should seriously consider using a WiFi TV distribution system, like the one made by Ruckus Wireless, to interconnect set-tops and home gateways in its U-verse homes. A lot of people don't understand what 802.11n is, how it works, nor how well it handles HDTV streaming. That's why they put on their foil hats and fret about where to move their microwave ovens to avoid wrecking a good TV signal.
From carrier deployments worldwide, we know that older WiFi technologies handled standard-def TV signals with ease in a wide variety of home network deployments. The same will most likely happen with 802.11n gear, but it won't be a cure-all. At the very least, AT&T should identify an "ideal home" scenario for 802.11n gear and make use of cable-free networking whenever possible.
Of course, none of these ideas, by themselves, will make AT&T a fortune, but it won't lose them any customers, either. And those two things are almost of equal importance, in the wacky world of IPTV.
— Phil Harvey, The Editor, Light Reading