AT&T U-verse turns the triple play

It's no mean feat to get the Internet, telephone, and entertainment combo exactly right, but AT&T may have the formula

A lot of telcos and cable companies talk about their triple play -- Internet, telephone, and entertainment -- but there are very few that can nail the combination for consumers, let alone professionals. The bandwidth required for perfectly executing all of the elements of triple play is enormous. The Internet service has to be competitive with DSL and cable in speed and reliability. The VoIP phone must have the sound quality and reliability of a landline, but with online features like voice mail via e-mail and Web-based management. And the entertainment has to rival the channel selection of satellite services, including a fast-growing range of HD channels.

I once sampled the cable triple play, the only option at the time, and discovered that piling IP services on an infrastructure with too little headroom made all three services unacceptable. It might have been OK for a home user who finds the frequent need to reset the cable box merely annoying. But in professional use, dropping a call or losing Internet access costs money. I quickly learned that the last place you want to call when you don't have dial tone is cable company tech support.

[ Tom Yager takes another look at telcos and broadband in "The incredible shrinking Internet" ]

Cable lessons

When I ordered VoIP, the cable company was keen on full-building service to "kick out the telephone company." I wanted to trial it through a single dedicated jack. The tech said he understood, gave me the VoIP box to configure as I pleased, and departed. I hooked it to the cable coax, powered it up, and had immediate dial tone and incoming calls. He returned several hours later, opened my telco network interface, and moved my phone, DSL, ISDN, and cable VoIP to my building's central wiring, sending the overlapping signals throughout the building's RJ-11 phone jacks. This left me with a most interesting dial tone.

Understandably, I fired the cable company as my phone provider and made rewiring my telco interface my problem. It was lucky that I knew how to do that, but I still lost hours of work and went without phone and Internet for most of a day. The same cable company offers what it calls business-class service, which adds static IP addresses. I shudder to think what that's like. It took me four hours to reestablish telco and DSL. Before firing them, I did trial the cable company's VoIP service and found it to be stereotypically awful: noisy, lagging, echoing, half-duplex much of the time, and plagued by dropped calls.

I continue to use a cable modem as a backup to DSL, and as a means of testing my servers from "the outside." In that capacity alone, quality of service isn't much of a concern. But I still hoped to find a triple play that worked so that I could experience it and write about it. It seemed odd that in a metro area, no alternatives existed.

Your turn, AT&T

Last week, AT&T dug a grave-sized hole in my backyard, where a corner is set aside as the company's right of way for a neighborhood wiring post. Within a day of filling the hole, AT&T sent me a postcard about U-verse, the telco's triple play. Given that there's no installation charge or term commitment, I had no reason not to go for it. I had it installed only yesterday, so I can only speak to the technology and infrastructure, which I find fascinating. I'm no shill for U-verse or for AT&T; I'm a paying customer like any other, and having had the service for about 24 hours, I can't and won't speak to its quality.

U-Verse isn't DSL. The regional supervisor stopped by because mine is a unique install in that I'd be using static IPs and running servers, and he's the one who gave me the lowdown on the technical side. He explained that U-verse is a separate business unit with dedicated infrastructure; it is not stacked on top of DSL. Like all terrestrial triple plays, including digital cable, all U-verse services are delivered via IP. What's different about U-verse is that -- except for TV, which relies on a small box -- the service requires no equipment inside the building. The box switches channels by targeting a different IP address. The installers put in four RJ-45 wall plates, three strictly for my computers, including one right next to my server cluster. Every one of those jacks is 100-megabit, full-duplex Ethernet. In other words, my whole building is now wired for IP, with the link terminating at an enormous bank of rack servers dedicated to U-verse.

U-verse does provide a wireless gateway that enables VoIP and works as a wireless and wired DHCP/NAT server. Most customers will use it in that capacity. Fortunately, that gateway also works in bridge, either forwarding one of your static IP addresses to a LAN address, through a firewall, or passing the traffic directly. I found that I can also make use of U-verse's dynamic, public IP addresses, obviating the need to use cable modem to get to my static subnet from an outside source.

Stay tuned

I still have a lot of work to do. I wasn't able to keep the static IPs I used with DSL. It will take a couple of days for AT&T to set up the reverse IP delegation that completes my ownership of my static IPs. Then I'll need to take care of DNS through my registrars and at my Xserves. But having been through this twice already, it shouldn't be that much trouble. As part of the bargain, my connection speed rose to a max of 18Mbps, with 1.5 megabits upstream. TV and VoIP get priority in quality of service, so the downstream bandwidth in my one informal test (with the TV running an HD channel) swung down to as little as 6Mbps, which is the minimum guaranteed speed. But because the TV service is almost entirely downstream, my upstream speed is constant.

The foreman for the install team left his cell number. "This service does not drop dial tone, does not lose IP access, does not have static on calls, does not have compression artifacts on the TV, and does not have dropouts on the 5.1 digital audio. If any of these things happens, you skip AT&T and call me."

I'll do that.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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