(Note: It wouldn't be fair to place AT&T U-verse purely under cable TV provider, because AT&T sells a variety of services under this umbrella, as explained below. Therefore my selection of "picture quality", etc. is unqualified.)
Recommend this product?
Simply put, AT&T is still cheating the public. This review will focus on the discrepancies between promise and delivery, and why you need to watch out for these pitfalls.
[Latest update 2010-12-05] Why do I have a feeling that this is going to drag on? Because it does! AT&T is now back, not only with yet another "final bill" for equipment each of their many agents has confirmed returned, but also send my account to a third party collector after I followed their agent's advice of "ignoring the bill in its entirety." Only this time, the latest very polite agent says it was their equipment group's fault to not update my account for the returned equipment. He promised to "open an inquiry" with that group and, upon my insistence, have a manager call me for update instead of me having to call them and listen to elevator music. Two days after he promised that the collectorship was automatically put on hold due to the inquiry, the collector called me asking for a check! The battle is on.[/update]
. What is U-verse?
The official line is: U-verse is AT&T's answer to Verizon's FiOS. Whereas FiOS terminates fiber optics on premise (in your home), U-verse terminates it close enough to premise, i.e., near your home, then uses existing copper (and new copper for Ethernet) to connect to your consumer terminals - TV, computer, phone. It promises to provide Internet, phone, and TV service ("triple play" in industry parler). You can get U-verse Internet without the other two, but not the other way around.
In practice, however, AT&T sells several different services using different technologies under this U-verse brand. Beware of what you get.
In my case, they sold me U-verse Internet, eagerly promoted as better than DSL (AT&T also offers DSL Internet access). However, their technicians keep using the term DSL to describe my installation, prompting me to probe deeper. "There is no way you can get U-verse, as there is no fiber near you." One technician got so frustrated as to saying "They may call it U-verse, but it's still DSL, just different from their traditional DSL."
. Why did I want U-verse Internet?
I didn't. I called AT&T because they repeatedly sent promotional junk mails promising "dry" DSL at $19.95 a month. That means I could get broadband Internet without sucking into AT&T's phone service. My main motivation is my natural disgust toward forced service bundles - such as the cable Internet I get, where I have to pay for cable TV in order to get Internet. (After some tinkering with the ATVA100 antenna, I unplugged cable from my TV. But I don't like keep paying for it.)
AT&T was forced to offer unbundled ("dry") DSL at $20/month a couple of years back after FCC ruled against it over its unfair trade practices. But apparently AT&T is determined to make this as difficult as possible. Despite years of junk mail promos to my home, I was told that they couldn't give me the FCC mandated deal because my area had been "upgraded" to U-verse. (This proved to be a deceptive tactic. See below.)
The starting price for U-verse Internet is higher than $19.95 but I still don't have to subscribe to AT&T phone. If I choose a more expensive package, I can get reasonable speed and still pay less than to cable. So after an hour on the phone, I decided to take the bite. "Let me double check availability at your address." (Previous assurance that U-verse was available evapourated.) "Pro," or 3.0Mbps down stream is available at $35/month ($25 for first year - even though their Web site says starting from $15). Compared to cable Internet, the speed is not exciting and the price is not that low, but I won't be too heavy on video, and I won't have a TV bill. Besides, AT&T home Internet users also get "free" access to any AT&T Wi-Fi hot spot. (As I have discovered later, free access is only to "free" AT&T Wi-Fi hot spots, not "any." And free ones are not dense enough for common use.)
Additional information provided by the sales rep: No. I couldn't have U-verse TV "because the service wasn't available in your area." (Not that I really wanted to pay another TV bill but I was curious.) Really? My local radio stations were floored by AT&T U-verse commercials; TV stations, too.
No. I couldn't get the top speed in AT&T's line-up - not even the second tier ("Elite") "because of the distance." Huh? Hadn't you just told me U-verse was optical? Of course, the sale rep couldn't answer such questions and I let it settle.
"Can I get an iPhone 4 pre-order?" (It was days before Apple's Big Day, a week after on-line pre-orders crashed AT&T Web site.) No way, but nice try. Any price advantage when I finally sign up for AT&T Wireless? No. But you get a nice combined bill.
. What do I really get from AT&T U-verse?
Two words: Bad taste.
The 2-Wire terminal adapter (TA, commonly known as DSL MODEM)/wireless router combo arrived within promised window. (Even though IEEE802.11n has been ratified for years, this device only supports 802.11g and b, limiting Wi-Fi speed to 54Mbps. Still, I accepted the $100 bill to buy it.) That was all that was fulfilled by AT&T - or rather, by USPS, in my contract.
Self-install documentation was scant. An E-mail sent to me says to "register with AT&T by following" self installation document, but all I received were equipment documents and a one-sheet AT&T flyer basically touting features of U-verse. (They even quickly sent me a follow-up survey asking about self-install experience.)
I am technical enough to know how to deal with these TA-routers. So I plugged the TA into one of my phone jacks. No link signal. Another jack. No signal. I tried all jacks. No signal.
I had never had phone service with AT&T or any other carrier at this address, so I didn't know if any jacks were "live." I had explained this before I signed up and was assured that service was available. I had asked how much would it cost to install a new jack? $90 - that's 40% higher than a few years ago when I needed to do such an installation, to which I kindly said no.
I called AT&T from work, trying to make an appointment. But the agent at the other end told me that I needed to perform some test on the equipment first. So, I waited to go home and call again. No test needed. An appointment was set.
The next day, I stayed home to wait on the technician. He confirmed that wiring in my home was fine, but he couldn't get a signal. So the problem was in the community box. He went out, and came back saying that he couldn't get signal from there, either. He needed to drop a note for another technician to fix that. He promised to call me back when that was done.
Several more days passed. No phone call. I tried again. No signal. Called AT&T again. The agent insisted on sending another field technician to check my inside wiring - i.e., to squeeze money from me. I rejected and insisted that they fix whatever the first technician had determined to be the problem. "We have already fixed that problem." Finally, I agreed to another appointment. On the day of appointment, I took an early leave and waited. And waited. And waited.
Ten minutes before AT&T's infamous 3-hour window was to close on me, I called AT&T again. "No. I see no dispatch." Great. After speaking to a supervisor, it was clear that an appointment had been entered, but the field office didn't schedule a dispatch for it.
So, I insisted that next time, a technician confirm that whatever was the outside problem be fixed before I could agree to another appointment. Guess what? The technician called and confirmed that the prior "fix" sent the wrong signal; they put the traditional DSL on my drop. (In addition to ineptness, this also proves that they have used a deceptive sales tactic to not give me the $20/month dry DSL mandated by FCC.) Another field repair was needed.
After that, the technician offered to come to my place if I still couldn't get signal. I could. But the link signal kept blinking. The technician came, but still couldn't get anything. He suggested that the community wiring could have fault, but he didn't have the equipment to verify.
I was weighing whether to call for another field service when a few days later I accidentally noticed that the link became steady. I called the technician directly as he offered to help. He came and helped me register with U-verse/DSL. He commented that he spoke with his colleagues about my case and they believed that the "E" wiring (spaghetti wiring in my book) originally used in my home shouldn't have affected data transmission at this low rate at this distance.
Before I could declare happy ending, he ran a speed test. 500 kbps. I was pretty sure I signed up for 3 Mbps. But he didn't have a magic wand to change this.
So, I tested all jacks in my home again, none gave me better result. I tested again on different days. The best speed I was able to get was 1.2 Mbps. On most days, it was between 500 and 800 kbps.
So, here is the Reader's Digest version of my U-verse experience: Signed up for 3.0 Mbps, no service for three weeks, finally got 800 kbps, which was about 1/10 of the speed I got from cable Internet and 1/3 of what the contract promised.
And I live in a dense market, not a rural area.
. How to cancel?
When I called AT&T again and asked for cancellation, naturally they wanted to send for another field service. "Just to make sure you are completely satisfied." No. Thank you. By that point, I had spent more than 10 hours on the phone, and more than 6 hours waiting and working with technicians. So, they gave me a number to call. As a precaution, I asked to which department would I be speaking. "Customer retention." Hmmm.
Surprisingly, unlike with Vonage, AT&T's department of customer retention didn't make any effort to retain me. I asked for instructions about returning the equipment and they gave it to me, and marked my account as cancelled. I made it clear that they were not to charge me for anything. The agent said that she could only handle that part when there was a billable bill generated.
I was secretly rejoicing that they never did when I found the bill today. Another fight awaiting.
[Update 08-06] Finally, I can "disregard (the bill) in its entirety," after another musak-filled half hour and an opening line "I received a bill for something I have never been able to use" upon the prompt How may I help you today. Happy ending?[/Update]
[Update 09-01] Not so fast. More than two weeks after that agent declared successful annulment of this bill, AT&T's "Accounts Receivable" sent another letter claiming that I owed them the final bill. Another 22 min of waiting, rerouting, and explanation. As any other AT&T employee I had interacted before, this agent was very polite and tried to help. I got a promise of her personally calling the AR department to stop those letters. I trust that she will do that. But can I trust AT&T will stop this nonsense?[/Update]
[Update 10-07] Apparently, my mistrust is unmistaken. AT&T dutifully sent me another bill, marking down $12 as "payment or credit" and demanding the rest as past due.[/Update]
AT&T is practicing false advertisement in FCC mandated dry DSL as well as in U-verse Internet services, using deceptive sales tactics. Even the last technician mentioned some class action regarding AT&T's inability to deliver promised data rate. Adding to this, AT&T is not able to get their last billing straight, so cancellation is still a pain, albeit not as bad as with Vonage.
Be careful out there.
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Amount Paid (US$): 35