Having been a marketing dude for twenty years, I find that I am often fairly immune to being marketed to.  I know all the messages designed to "save time and money", so traditional marketing rarely gets through to me.  There are times, though, when I will eventually give in and pay attention, especially if I get hit over the head with a marketing message often enough.  Years after I vowed never to shop at Macy's when they buried the Marshall Field's brand, I found myself at the mall today shopping there due to coupons and discounts galore (though it's still not my first stop).  Such was also the case when it came to AT&T's relentless marketing of it's new home networking offering, AT&T U-Verse.  While I was satisfied with Comcast Internet and DirecTV satellite service, the AT&T marketing barrage eventually forced me to pay attention.  And they did it the old-fashioned way -- offering better services at less cost, with free installation and a $200 rebate.  

OK, OK, I gave in, and a few weeks ago, we switched Internet, HDTV, and landline phone services to U-Verse.  Lotus community geeks have probably read Rocky Oliver's posting about his switch, which goes deep into the details of the technology and some of the benefits.  Our experience is similar -- this was a worthwhile switch.  It's not perfect, but none of the home networking service offerings are.  So far, AT&T seems to have topped the others in a lot of ways, and I hope they will continue to innovate and stay ahead of the pack.

First off, I switched to save money.  I was paying somewhere around $240 a month for DirecTV, Comcast Internet, and two phone lines in the past.  The U-Verse bill, with the packages and upgrades we chose, will come in around $180 a month.  There were options in setting up the service to even cut the cost further -- slower Internet (I took the max - 18 MB/s download, which is what I was getting on Comcast), fewer TV channels, HD vs. non-HD (finally, Travel Channel in HD), call packages vs. unlimited calling.  Overall, at a 25% savings per month, we are getting the same or better services.  Clearly, AT&T is going for market share now, and at some point later, I expect the costs will flatten out, but this wasn't just a financial decision.

The second benefit was the vastly-improved TV viewing experience.  The picture quality is about the same, but there are no more issues worrying about ice or a thunderstorm blocking our TV reception.  Further, a whole bunch of services I had missed from cable TV are here -- on-demand movies, simultaneous record and view (DirecTV offers this, but only if you run extra cabling from the dish), additional local market channels (though Highland Park's community access programming is not yet on U-Verse).  There are then the additional benefits -- with one controller box, you can watch a recorded show from any TV in the network -- even starting playback at one TV (e.g. living room) and picking it up at another (e.g. bedroom) later.

The third area where U-Verse makes sense is in converged services.  From the TV or an Internet browser, I can view a call log for our landlines.  We can retrieve voicemail online, from anywhere in the world.  There is integration with Flickr and Yahoo Games.  The AT&T network hub is a wi-fi hotspot for the home.  The service includes basic AT&T wi-fi access point service from places like Starbucks.  From anywhere, you can access your account to schedule DVR recordings -- no more "I forgot to record this before we left" moments.

I have few complaints so far -- the main one is that the TV stream can only support two HD signals at once.  I didn't think this would be a big deal, but it means that if you are recording two shows at once -- something we did often with two separate DirecTV -- you can't watch an HD show.  AT&T says unofficially they are working on this limitation.  As for other issues, occasionally, the caller ID doesn't work on incoming calls.  The Internet upload speed can be a little sluggish, though right now it is testing at the advertised 1.5 MB/s.  You have to enter the HD channel number separately from the regular one -- paying extra for HD service should mean that a channel is delivered in HD when available.

A few weeks in, though, and we're very satisfied.  The installation was professional and relatively painless.  I had heard stories of all-day U-Verse installs, but ours was done in about four hours, using existing household wiring, and everything worked the first time.  I know that some friends and neighbors resent the fact that to deploy this service, AT&T had to install big ugly utility boxes all over town -- but they've also landscaped most of them to hide the eyesore.  And as if I needed any more convincing that the switch was the right decision, the way that our disconnects played out made me glad I had left the other providers.  For Comcast, I had to wait nearly 30 minutes at their local office to return the cable modem, behind people who clearly could have been rerouted to over-the-phone call centers with their questions.  For DirecTV, they tried to claim we were on a two-year contract through late 2010, as the result of changing a box out sometime last year.

Clearly, my switch to AT&T U-Verse was the result of healthy competition in the network services market.  A few years from now, there will be something else that is faster, cheaper, better.  There are lessons for me in my day job from all of this -- if I had had to pay the disconnect charges, the installation charges, or had less functionality as a result of switching to a competitor, it clearly would not have been worth it.  When I return to work tomorrow after a weeks' vacation, I will be ready to incorporate my personal experience back into my professional world -- and go out and win some more business.

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