Comcast vs. AT&T U-Verse

Competition is a good thing. Over the past couple months I've seen AT&T trucks rolling all over town, setting up little tents and doing lots of infrastructure work. Turns out they were installing fiber so they could offer U-Verse service in our area. U-Verse is AT&T's multi-service answer to your cable companies combined internet, television, and phone service.


The Frustration


I'm currently a Comcast customer (formerly Insight, rolled into Comcast for reasons unknown). I'm paying entirely too much for the service we receive. In our home we have:

  • Widescreen HDTV in the living room
    • Surround Sound Receiver and Speakers
    • DVD / VCR Combo player
    • Nintendo Wii
    • Gamecube
    • Comcast Dual-Tuner DVR

  • Studio Monitor in family room
    • DVD player

  • Standard TV in Basement
    • Comcast Dual-Tuner DVR
    • Countless video game systems

  • Standard TV in bedroom
    • hooked directly to coax

As far as services, we get:
  • Basic Cable (about 30 analog stations)
  • Extended Cable (another 30 analog and 30 digital stations)
  • HBO
  • Starz
  • Internet Service

Our local stations come in HD for free. So for those services and two tuners we were paying a total of $143.09 a month. Good grief! I don't have the bill in front of me, but I think it broke down like this:











Dual Tuner #1$10
Dual Tuner #2$13
Basic Cable$30
Extended Cable$30
HBO$15
Starz$10
Internet Service$35 ($45 with $10 discount for having television service)
Unexplained taxes and fees$10
Sub-Total$143

Needless to say I've felt like Comcast has been bending us over for quite some time. I've also had a persistent gripe about the quality of their Video On Deman (VoD) service. The image is so compressed that during action sequences you can't really tell what is going on. I will say, however, that the quality of live television, especially in HD, is exceptional.



The Pitch


Now U-Verse sends us a pamphlet to let us know that their service is available, along with pricing and service comparisons.


U-Verse U400+Internet Express package includes:

  • Nearly all available channels (over 400 digital stations plus local and music channels)
  • HBO
  • Starz
  • Cinemax
  • Showtime
  • 1.5Mbps internet service
  • 1 DVR capable of recording 4 programs included
  • 3 non-DVR Set top boxes included

Total price - $124.99 / month. I assumed there would again be the usual $10 in unexplainable fees and taxes, but even given that it would be $10 less than Comcast for a whole lot more service. The other thing that really caught my attention was that the U-Verse service runs on CAT-5 cable (the same stuff that runs internet service to your PC). Our house is wired for coax cable (the traditional tv cable), but not for CAT-5. Some modern homes are wired for CAT-5, and I would love for our home to have it so I could get computing devices plugged in anywhere. Turns out, AT&T will wire your home for CAT-5 as part of installation, and the installation fee is waived! Awesome!



The Plan


So here was my plan - play the two competitors against each other. First, I called AT&T to get pricing on U-Verse. I wanted the U400+Internet service ($125) with improved internet service to 3.0Mbps (+$5) and HDTV service (+$10). Total - $140 which is what I'm paying to Comcast but with a lot more service features. I went ahead and placed the order for service and the installer was scheduled to come out in two days.


Next, I called Comcast to let them know about the AT&T service I just ordered, and that I wanted either more services or a discount. The operator stonewalled for a bit, but when she realized I was serious about cancelling that fat $150 / month check, she put me on hold to talk with her manager. Now here is gripe #1 with Comcast...it took 15 minutes on hold before an operator even picked up. Then I spent another 10 minutes on hold while she conferred with her manager. She came back to let me know that there was a package they could put me on that could offer more services than I have now at a lower rate. Turns out they had a HBO+Starz Digital Plus pack that included all of what I was getting plus over 100 digital channels and an extra set top box for $90 / month. Add the internet service and it came to a nice $125 / month. Great, I got what I wanted from Comcast - more services and a lowered bill!


Round 2 - I called AT&T to cancel the install. I had what I wanted from Comcast and there was no sense in installing the AT&T service if it was going to be ten bucks more, even if it did have more channels. After all, I hardly watch television. However, the AT&T operator quickly responded by offering $20 off for the first six months and reminding me that I'd be getting my house wired for CAT-5 for free. In addition, the first month of service would be free, and if I kept the service for 30 days I could get a $100 cash rebate check. So really, it would cost me nothing to try the service for a month to compare AT&T to Comcast. Given this scenario, I kept the appointment for AT&T to install on Friday, which just happened to coincide with when the Comcast installer would be in to install the new set top box in the upstairs bedroom. Oh what fun! Two competing installers at the house at the same time!


Oh, and before I forget, there was no long-term contract required for either of these services, so there was no penalty involved to cancel either way.


The install


On that 8am-noon arrival time, the AT&T installer arrived a little after 9am. Not bad, it gave me time to clear the cobwebs and have a cup of coffee. He walked me through the equipment that would be installed and we surveyed the house for the best way to run cable. We talked about the studio monitor in the family room that currently didn't have cable service and how it would be nice to have there. He took a look and said it would be no problem and no cost to run the extra cable, just $5 / month more on the bill for the extra set top box. So we gave him the go ahead on that extra set. He first had to run out to the D-SLAM (more on what this is later) to get service running to the house.


A little after 10am the Comcast installer arrived. He was in and out in under 30 minutes as he only had to hook up a box. I told him that I hadn't seen the new statiosn activated yet. He tried to call his dispatch to check on it, but ended up on hold for 10 minutes. He indicated that phone times had really degraded since the switch to Comcast, which I thought was a really weird thing for a Comcast installer to admit. Anyway, turns out the local office had a power outage, and the services were switched on by the afternoon.


The AT&T installer was at the house for over 8 hours! He got everything wired, fishing CAT-5 through walls, basement, crawlspace, and the garage attic. He left an extra 8-port gigabit switch to hookup all the PC's in the house and programmed all of the remotes for the TVs. I was really impressed with this guy!


The Comparison


Comcast


Pros:

  • High Definition stations look much better
  • All televisions in the house can view any channel at any time
  • Two DVRs in the house, each with a dual tuner capable of recording two high definition channels at the same time, or viewing one channel while recording another.


Cons:

  • Fewer HD stations available
  • Fewer total stations available
  • Video on Demand picture quality is terrible
  • Only three sets hooked up in the house
  • No choice on internet speed / price


AT&T U-Verse


Pros:

  • Standard Definition televisions have a noticeably better picture quality on live television
  • House is wired for CAT-5, yeah!
  • Double the number of HD stations available
  • Double the number of Digital stations available
  • DVR can record 4 digital stations simultaneously
  • Video on Demand picture quality is awesome
  • Can host non-business related services on the internet connection


Cons:

  • High Definition picture quality is good, but not quite as good as Comcast
    • I can definitely see compression artifacts and aliasing in the picture

  • Only one high definition station can be viewed at a time anywhere in the house
  • Only one DVR on one TV for the house
  • Overall picture quality on the High Definition Television for any station is not quite as good as Comcast.


Result


I'm torn. The HD picture quality on Comcast is noticeably better, and the dual tuner DVRs are a huge plus for my wife who is a voracious TV consumer. She definitely takes advantage of the ability to record one high-def station while viewing another. I don't watch much TV, but the TV I do watch tends to be the niche channels and Video on Demand stuff. So for me, the better picture quality of VoD and the abundance of niche market channels has real appeal. Add to that the inclusion of Cinemax and Showtime in U-Verse which Comcast asks additional payments for. We've only had the service for one weekend, so we'll give it a couple of weeks to see if we lean one way or the other.


The Technology


The U-Verse technology is really interesting. It is like no other television service. With your cable or even satellite television service, the cable company is constantly broadcasting all channels to your house simultaneously. So if you want to switch stations your Set Top Box (STB) just switches the frequency that it is tuned to. With U-Verse, only the channel you request is sent to your house by AT&T. So if none of the STBs in your house are on, nothing is being broadcast to your house. The way it works is a hybrid solution. AT&T runs a fiber optic cable to a residential box called a D-SLAM. The D-SLAM converts the signal on the fiber optic signal to a signal on your copper telephone line that runs the rest of the way to your house. You have to live within 3,000 feet of the D-SLAM for the service to work. This is much cheaper than the route that Verizon is taking with their Fiber to the Premises (FTTP) service where they install new fiber optic wire all the way to your home for every home in the neighborhood. The AT&T solutions uses your existing cable for that "last mile" connection.


So what does all that mean? It means that with U-Verse, you aren't watching traditional cable. Instead, you really have a very high speed internet connection that your television program is sent over. A residential gateway (RG) is installed in your house. This is like a giant cable modem with a 26Mbps connection. That's right, 26Mbps. Why such a big pipe? Not only does your internet service (1.5Mbps with the base offer) travel through this pipe, so does your television data. With current AT&T U-Verse service, one Standard Definition (SD) station uses about 6Mbps. One High Definition (HD) station uses around 19Mbps. This is where the single HD station limit is encountered. You just can't fit 2*19 into 26. If you have two HD sets in the house, only one can watch or record at a time. However, you can get 4 SD channels going at once (4 * 6 < 26). This also leaves room for your internet service (they currently offer up to 6Mbps service) as well as the future addition of VoIP telephone service.


So is that the end of the tech story? Not really. AT&T realizes that this limitation is going to kill them so they are working on improvement. One improvement is called the "bonded pair". You RG only really needs to use two of the wires coming into your house, but the installer is going to hook up another pair. Why? Later this year AT&T is going to enable "bonded pair" technology which effectively gives you two U-Verse hookups on one box, upping the total bandwidth to your RG to around 40Mbps. That alone would allow you to view two HD stations at once, but AT&T isn't going to stop there. They also plan to roll-out improved compression codecs. The U-Verse STB is currently decoding a MPEG-2 stream, which is a fairly old codec. In the coming months the service will be converted to use H.264 streams, which are a much higher compression while also a providing better video quality. The new codec will shrink your SD stream down under 3Mbps and your HD stream to 6.5Mbps. With the increased bandwidth and diminished stream size, AT&T plans to allow you to view 2HD and 2SD streams simultaneously. Let's see, with our new values that's 2*6.5 + 2*3 = 25Mbps. What about that other 15Mbps left over? Expect it to go to VoIP service and faster internet connections, or possibly some as yet unannounced service.


One last thing - the single DVR limit. Yeah, that's going away too. In the second half of this year AT&T is expected to release the Whole House Digital Video Record (or WHDVR for short) firmware that will allow you to stream recorded programs on your one DVR to any other set top box in your house. So now you can treat all of those STB's just like a DVR, and ignore the fact that the recording is being stored on another box. Neat!


Final Thoughts


Like I said, I'm torn on what to do about our service. But what would I recommend? If you do not have HDTV, it would be a no brainer to sign-up for U-Verse service over standard cable. The quality and selection are just so much better. If you have just one HDTV...it is going to depend on your taste. If you are HD snob, you'll be disappointed with the current service over what cable and satellite provide. On the other hand, if you have a smaller HD set, or just don't care about the quality, I would still recommend signing up. If you have more than one HD set that you use, the U-Verse product just won't work for you, so stay with what you have.


Television consumers are going to see great benefits of AT&T, Comcast, DirecTV, Dish, and all the other players going head to head for your entertainment dollar. Expect prices to come down and services to go up. Competition is a good thing!

6 comments:

Sam said...

My 2 cents.

I read about something like U-Verse when they were testing it in... was it Switzerland?

All in all, the technology seems awesome to me, but I think at the end of the day the cable company has bigger pipes. Therefore if they just implement the upgrades that the U-Verse has, then you'll have the best service of all.

So essentially it's a question of AT&T upgrading their pipes and Comcast upgrading all of the other stuff.

Based on that, I would be inclined to go with whichever company has the smaller market share at the time. As you said, you're winning because of competition. So you want to make sure there's always competition. Right now that's probably AT&T.

BTW: A friend of mine just got a large HDTV and this is the first time that I've thought that the 360 was awesomer than the Wii. There's not a big difference on my old CRT, but there sure is on his TV.

If I were an employed engineer rather than a grad student, I'd definitely be thinking PS3 and Blueray.

---

Anyway, I hope you're doing well!

Adam said...

Great to hear from you again Sam!

I totally agree. Comcast could easily make this a no-brainer competition by providing more services or more choice. AT&T is struggling to get a foothold, so they are willing to do anything to get a customer at the moment. A statistic I saw claimed that AT&T is getting 60% of their sign-ups from former cable and satellite customers.

Funny you mention the PS3 / 360. We are looking at a second HDTV for the basement and I would really like to put a Blu-Ray player on it. The PS3 is a modestly priced Blu-Ray player that also happens to play games, so I definitely would consider it. With the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray competition settled, I imagine we'll see a short period of increased pricing for the media, and then a drop as the former HD-DVD vendors get their technology switched out.

Jennifer said...

WHAT?? Do we really need another game system?!?!!?! :)

Anonymous said...

I LOVE JENNIFER'S COMMENT MOST OF ALL HA HA HA GG

Anonymous said...

Hey-- thanks for the article. I'm an AT&T employee, and it was very informative, even for me!

I do want to point out one thing-- Sam said, "at the end of the day the cable company has bigger pipes." This seems to imply that the cable company's physical plant provides a greater theoretical upper limit on bandwidth than the phone company's. I beg to differ.

While it's true that coaxial cable has a greater upper limit on bandwidth than twisted-pair telephone wires, there is a glaring deficiency in the cable company's network topology that you are missing. Cable TV for a particular neighborhood (or whatever size area works out of a single substation) is provided to all customers over ONE single coaxial cable. Telephone customers have an individual, dedicated twisted pair going all the way from their house to the substation (or DSLAM).

If you climb a telephone pole and cut through the Cable TV wire, you will see that it is one large coaxial wire. The drop wire that runs to each house is "tapped" into this wire. So the total bandwidth traveling down the wire is shared by all of the customers tapped into it.

If you were to cut into the telephone wire up the same pole, you would see hundreds of tiny copper wires. The drop wire that runs to each house is tapped into its own, unique twisted pair, which no other house shares.

So let's say that the theoretical bandwidth limitations of both coax and twisted-pair are reached. And let's say that everything else is equal-- the same number of substations/DSLAMs for a given number of customers. Both the cable company's and the telephone company's substations are fed by fiber optic cable. There is practically no limit to the bandwidth that can be achieved over fiber. Right now, it is limited by the cost of the transcievers at both ends. But it's practically unlimited, so we'll assume that it is.
And since we're agreeing that fiber optics provide unlimited bandwidth, the bottleneck is the "last-mile" infrastructure-- that is, the part of the network between the substation or DSLAM and the customer's house.
As faster internet service and richer television content is provided, the bandwidth required will become more and more taxing on this "last mile" infrastructure. Cable customers all share a single coax cable over that last mile. It is a "token-ring" network topology. Every customer "sees" the data going to every other customer along the path, but only the content that is being requested by that particular customer is "plucked" out of the stream and displayed on the TV. So everything that EVERYONE is watching must fit within the bandwidth constraints of one coaxial wire. The cable service presumably has part of its bandwidth reserved for "common" content, accessible by everyone along the route as described in your article. The rest of the bandwidth would contain "on-demand" content-- that is, content that is being delivered to only one customer along the route. But if too many customers along the route are requesting DIFFERENT on-demand content, you run out of bandwidth and customers start getting "denied" messages when they try to order on-demand content.
By contrast, U-Verse customers each have a dedicated twisted pair going that "last mile" from the DSLAM to their house. Twisted-pair doesn't provide the bandwidth that coax does, but then, everyone is not SHARING the same twisted pair.
With U-verse, you could look at it as if EVERYTHING was "on-demand" content. The DSLAM is a server that routes customized data out over each twisted pair. There's really no difference in the amount of bandwidth required for a customer to watch CNN or to watch an "on-demand" movie. No one else but you uses that twisted pair between you and the DSLAM. So every customer in the neighborhood could be watching a different "on-demand" feature simulatenously, and as long as the DSLAM has the processing power to serve them up, there would be no degradation in quality or denial of service to any customer.

So AT&T's network layout amounts to a superior medium for providing custom content to each household. This applies to internet traffic as well, obviously. Though ComCast likes to trumpet that they are "way faster than DSL," they're really talking about POTENTIAL speeds over the LAST-MILE only. If on one side of the street you have 10 U-verse customers who subscribe to the 10Mb package, they could all 10 download at the maximum rate at the same time. On the other side of the street, you have 10 ComCast customers who have the 12Mb "Powerboost" RoadRunner service. If they all try to download at once, however, you have to hope that 120Mb can be passed through that shared coax wire. I'll give you a hint: it can't.

Chris

cj2161@att.com

P.S. none of this message represents AT&T's views, etc.

Adam said...

Wow, Chris, thanks for the informative reply! In the past we have received the "Request cannot be processed at this time" message from ComCast when requesting On-Demand content. I had no idea it could be due to the total bandwidth available to the last-mile infrastructure. Now that you mention it, that makes a lot of sense. I would usually see that message during peak times for requesting movies - Friday and Saturday evenings. It also explains why the On-Demand content from ComCast looks so miserable. With such a limited amount of bandwidth for passing on demand content, they are trying to compress on-demand content as much as possible so that the maximum number of on-demand requests can be met. The result is that watching action movies over ComCast is a miserable experience. On the other hand, watching on-demand movies over U-Verse is no different from watching live TV.

We've had the U-Verse and ComCast services side-by-side for a couple of weeks now, and the comparison has been interesting.

U-Verse
- Better Channel selection / quantity
- More choice in internet service speed tiers
- More STB's with package
- Better Standard Definition Picture Quality

ComCast
- Better High Definition Picture Quality
- Multiple high definition streams available simultaneously
- Multiple DVRs possible

If we didn't have an HDTV, it would be a no-brainer to stick with U-Verse. The single HD stream limit is the killer though. I could live with the slight down-graded picture quality of HD on U-Verse as it is still a beautiful picture. The single HD stream means that only one of the HD sets in the house can be used at a time, and we can't record one HD show while viewing another. Once AT&T gets this solved, I won't have any hesitation in recommending U-Verse to anyone.

I've heard rumors on the U-Verse Users web forum that AT&T has an upgraded pair bonded solution coming sometime late this year that will upgrade the bandwidth on the last mile to 40Mbps, and another technology upgrade that will switch from MPEG2 video streams to H.264 video streams (a much better picture quality at much lower bandwidth). The result of these two changes would be 2HD / 2SD streams available to the home all at the same time. In addition, a whole house DVR (WHDVR) is in the works. That's great news, and would definitely resolve my issue over the single HD stream.

 
Jade Mason