Tuesday, December 1, 2009

U-Verse reliability update and some cable internet geekery

A couple quick updates...

U-Verse reliability

You might recall that after almost three flawless months, our U-Verse turned to crap in mid-November, going down for four hours on the 17th and having major line noise issues the following night.

We called AT&T for service, and they were unable to find any issue with the line the next day when they were out at our house, although the record from the previous night indicate some line noise. They did do some "wave the dead chicken" troubleshooting by switching our port on the VRAD and providing us with some noise filters for the ethernet cables.

Did those make a difference? It's been almost two weeks since then with no additional downtime. Of course, those two nights could have had nothing to do with us, but rather AT&T head end problems. We know the 4-hour outage was a higher-up issue as U-Verse service thorough the KC region was affected.

Oh well. After three full months of U-Verse, our uptime is at 99.74% (it was 99.99% before the glitches). Sunflower Broadband, for reference was at 99.14% for the first 9 months of 2009.

Cable Bandwidth Meter Geekery

Those of you on Sunflower have bandwidth limits, which you can track using a meter provided by the company. Have you ever wondered how the meter works or how accurate it is? Comcast, which is experimenting with similar metering, commission an audit of its meters by a third party, which can be read right here.

The summary? The Comcast meter is accurate within about 1% of actual use. FWIW, I don't know if Sunflower's meter uses the same technology as Comcast.

As an aside, one of the major problems with meters is that there's no real-time way to know if you (or something on your network you don't know about) is sucking down the bits. Sunflower has improved their meter to the point where it shows hour-by-hour usage, which helps somewhat, but what is really needed is a real-time "tachometer" to see the actual bandwidth. This probably needs to be built-in to the router or cable modem. Ironically, U-Verse's home gateway includes a built-in meter exactly like this...I say ironically because U-Verse doesn't cap bandwidth, so the meter is informational only, although still quite useful for figuring out of someone in my household is killing our connection by hogging the pipe. If you have U-Verse you can see the meter at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A couple quick updates

U-Verse Internet

After over 10 weeks of uptime, our U-Verse connection suffered it's first extended outage last night, going down for about 4 hours between 11:45 PM and 3:45 AM. The actual DSL link stayed up, but there was no internet access - i.e. the lights were on but nobody was home!

My guess is that there was an equipment outage in AT&T's "head end" rather then any problem with the DSL line itself. Either way, the result was the same, 4 hours downtime.
This knocks our overall uptime since we got U-Verse down to 99.70% (from 99.99%) which is still better (so far) then our average uptime with Sunflower Broadband, which was 99.14%. This U-Verse downtime better not become a habit. I'm cutting them some slack since everyone gets a freebie, but yeah, I'm not quite as enthusiastic as I was a day ago.

As an aside, as part of my troubleshooting when the net went down, I rebooted the home gateway. It made no difference for the main issue, but it did end up fixing a nagging problem I recently discovered where the home gateway wasn't fully opening up mapped ports through the firewall. It would kind of "half open" them in a weird way. The reboot fixed that. The router had been up for two months prior, which for a consumer router, is probably simply too long to remain running reliably without a power cycle.

Sunflower Broadband cable TV

Sunflower Broadband just announced a new multi-room DVR which is very similar to what we tried with U-Verse TV. As I mentioned in my TV overview, U-Verse has a multi-room DVR where you can watch recorded shows in any room and pause a show in one room and pick it up in the other. Sunflower is offering this as an "add on" to the existing TV service for an addition $25 per month (for two rooms) which makes their price (with this service) about the same as U-Verse.

For the technically curious, Sunflower is using Pace's multi-room DVR for this, and is actually one of the first companies in the United States offering the service. Pace's system works over ethernet or coaxial cable, and is similar to U-Verse in that there is a main unit with a hard drive acting as a network-attached storage device serving the other set-top boxes. The UI (at least for the Sunflower version of the box) is similar to their existing HD i-Guide, in other words, it's not going to put TiVo's UI designers out of business any time soon! Engadget has more details about the system's tech specs.

We're still satisfied with our TiVo, but having a multi-room option on both cable and U-Verse to choose from is certainly a good thing.

Monday, October 26, 2009

U-Verse internet update . . . 46 days and counting

Our U-Verse internet has been up now for 46 days without a single glitch. No downtime, and no noticeable or sustained dips in speed or ping time. I am probably jinxing myself, but I find this absolutely amazing. I guess I shouldn't find this too stunning (wait, you mean we're actually getting the service for which we paid?!?) but in over 10 years of service with Sunflower, we never went for longer then 7-10 days at a time without some downtime (if even for a few minutes), and frequently the outages and slowdowns were much worse.

I'd actually be interested in know why this is so, from a technical standpoint. I would think coaxial cable would be more reliable then copper, but perhaps it has to do more with the network management rather then the medium. Alas, it is a mystery.

Now, if the AT&T folks who run the U-Verse network could only give the guys who run their cellular data networks a few clues...

Monday, October 5, 2009

U-Verse Internet caveats

Our U-Verse internet has continued to be rock-solid (keeping fingers crossed) but during the month we've used it so far, there have been a few minor issues we have come across, which I will document here for Google and posterity. Two of these have easy workarounds, and the other two will not really matter to most people, but might to you, if you are a special flower....so read on....

First, the two issues that have workarounds:

1. The U-Verse gateway's DNS doesn't like Apple computers.

The workaround for this is easy. If you use a Mac, simply set your DNS to use OpenDNS (or if you have a bunch of Macs, you can do this in the router)

2. U-Verse's head end blocks outbound traffic on port 25 for non AT&T email accounts.

This is the port that is used by most mail programs when they send outbound email. This isn't something you can change locally in your router, but luckily AT&T will unblock it if you ask them. We were able to get this done in 5 minutes via their online chat support, but other people have had to call in to tier 2 technical support.

And second, the two issues which might be deal-killers for some folks:

3. U-Verse utilizes interleaving for their data transmission.

Interleaving is a method of transmitting data in non-sequential chunks to increase overall performance. This is good for things like TV, but it has a side-effect with internet...slightly longer ping times, up to 20 milliseconds or more. This doesn't matter to most people....unless you are an online gamer. Online gaming relies on very fast response times from the servers, and the added overhead of U-Verse's interleaving may degrade game performance in some games. This isn't a "100% for sure" thing...it depends on the game and the server, but it is certainly something that should be at "yellow alert" for any gamers considering U-Verse. Take advantage of the 1-month free trial and test with all your favorite games.

4. There's no way to get pure unrouted internet access to a local device.

U-Verse allows you to set up a DMZ, which for an individual PC will allow in all internet traffic. This is considered dangerous and only experienced folks who know what they are doing should use the DMZ. However, some physical devices, such as hardware VPN routers and firewalls do not like being in a DMZ; they prefer pure, unrouted "raw" public connections to the internet. U-Verse's residential gateway cannot be placed into the "bridge" mode that is required to do this, so if you need this functionality, make sure you test your devices with U-Verse during the free trial period to make sure they work.

U-Verse TV parting shot and wireless gateway weirdness

As I mentioned last week, we decided to go with Sunflower Broadband for television, keeping U-Verse for internet. This weekend, I disconnected the U-Verse set-top boxes in preparation for shipping them back to AT&T (this shipping is handled by the UPS store; AT&T has an account with them, so we just drop the boxes off there).

This gave me the chance to snap a couple extra pictures of various aspects I hadn't mentioned before. Specifically, you can now get a good view of the various ports on the back of the unit as well as seeing how the two units stack up right next to each other. (the smaller box is the secondary unit, sans DVR hard drive.)

Interestingly enough, once AT&T shuts off television service to your home (which they do remotely), you can't even use the DVR to watch previously-recorded shows. This is different then other devices like the TiVo, which allows you to watch shows previously recorded even if you no longer are paying for service.

Wireless weirdness

Last Thursday night, our U-Verse residential gateway's (RG's) wireless interface failed. Basically, it was randomly dropping connected wifi devices, and if you tried to connect a new device, sometimes it would connect, and sometimes it would not connect. Even if it connected, it would drop after a few minutes, or the DHCP server wouldn't assign an IP address to the wifi client. I determined that this was not any type of new interference or signal issue. My solution was simply cycling wifi off and turning it back on from the RG's admin interface, after which everything went back to working properly.

Needless to say, this glitch didn't fill me with confidence as to the robustness of the residential gateway. In comparison, our previous wireless router, an Apple Airport Extreme, ran uninterrupted for over a year without any glitches like this. I should also note that the DSL signal (i.e. internet connection) was fine through this entire episode. The problem is local on the gateway itself, not the upstream connection.

Although the RG allowed wireless to be reset without requiring a full reboot of the entire RG, we noticed later when we tried to watch a television show that was recorded during this time period that it was blocky, pixellated, and skipped a lot, indicating that the RG was really having some issues. We had already decided at this point to drop the U-Verse TV service, but this certainly reinforced our decision.

As of now, the RG has been performing fine, both wired and wireless since then. I will certainly be keeping an eye on things though. File this under "reliability, long term, questions of."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sunflower Broadband Gold Internet to receive upgrade

Mere days after we decided to go with U-Verse for our internet needs, we (as well as presumably every subscriber in Lawrence) got a letter from Sunflower Broadband detailing upgrades to their top-of-the-line Gold Internet package, starting November 1 (the news about the upgrade still isn't on Sunflower's web site as of this writing). This is the very package we recently subscribed to that we switched from to U-Verse. Does the new plan give us some serious "buyers remorse?"

Let's take a comparison:

Existing GoldUpgraded GoldU-Verse Max 18
Download21 mbit50 mbit18 mbit
Upload.75 mbit1 mbit1.5 mbit
Bandwidth cap50 GB120 GBunlimited

So, to summarize, for an extra $10 per month, Sunflower Gold customers will get over twice the download speed and bandwidth, and a very slight boost in upload speed. Not mentioned in the letter is the technology which make's Sunflower's upgrade possible, DOCSIS 3.0, which promises, as one of its features, better management ability of the data streams, which will hopefully end the evening congestion and slowdowns that have frustrated many cable modem customers. The faster download speed should be really nice for downloading huge files, such as operating systems and online movies and television. While many users won't see the theoretical maximum connecting to public sites on the internet, the fact that these speeds are starting to become available to home users is a great sign for the future. This is a solid upgrade and I congratulate Sunflower for bringing DOCSIS 3.0 technology to Lawrence.

While a good value for the extra $10, it isn't quite enough to win us back for now. I am disappointed to see the upload speed of the upgraded Gold plan is still an anemic 1 mbit, which is 50% less the our U-Verse connection and barely any better then the old Gold plan. Given how much upload speed matters for common tasks like uploading home photos and movies to online sharing sites, as well as file sharing and connecting to corporate VPNs, the almost unchanged upload speed isn't very impressive.

The increased bandwidth is very nice, and would make us worry less about unexpected overages, but it falls short of U-Verse's unlimited bandwidth, as well as continuing to be somewhat less then other cable providers such as Comcast which caps bandwidth at 250 gigabytes. Sunflower does offer a bandwidth-unlimited service called Palladium as an alternative, but variable download speeds and a still-slow upload don't make this an attractive option compared to U-Verse for now.

Sunflower's upgrades are good news for customers and makes the Internet choice closer then it was 24 hours ago. In the past, Sunflower has often "tweaked" their offerings, and if they bump the new Gold upload speeds up a megabit or so and continue to adjust their bandwidth limits higher, they have a good shot at winning our business back yet. For now though, we will still stick with U-Verse as long as its price and reliability continue unchanged.

The Verdict: Landline Telephone

It's kinda of anti-climactic, but we are going with AT&T U-Verse for our landline telephone. This is partially because we don't have much of a choice -- AT&T requires that you subscribe to at least two of the U-Verse packages to maintain service. Since we want the Internet and don't want the television, we have to maintain the phone service to keep subscribing.

There apparently is not concept of "dry loop" U-Verse. With regular DSL, you can subscribe without any ancillary phone service, and pay an extra $10 per month for this, but AT&T chose not to carry this ability over to U-Verse.

Luckily, we actually like the phone service so it's not much of an issue. The main pluses with U-Verse's phone is the internet-enabled management of the line, call logs, and voicemail messages, as well as unlimited long distance. I noted before the downside of touch tones not working all the time, but this is a relatively minor issue, albeit annoying -- and supposedly AT&T considers it a bug (they should!) and is trying to fix it.

Anyway, that's that. U-Verse for internet and phone, and Sunflower Broadband for television....or is it? This trial has been around a month. While I have gotten good ideas about each service's features and reliability, the fact is, 1 month is too short to figure everything out.

How is U-Verse's long term reliability? What about customer service consistency? We will continue to re-evaluate our service providers based on their own performance as well as new offers and changes from competitors. I plan to keep this blog going, as a resource for Lawrence, Kansas broadband users, as well as as a resource for the increasing number of visitors from outside Lawrence.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Verdict: Internet

We decided to go with U-Verse for our Internet service, canceling our Sunflower Broadband internet, which we had used for over 13 years. U-Verse' top line internet costs $15 more per month then Sunflower's; we decided that the advantages of U-Verse for internet were enough to make this extra $15 per month a reasonable value.

My main concern with U-Verse's service was its reliability. While, as they always say "past performance is no guarantee of future results," in four weeks of testing, our U-Verse internet has not gone down once, even for a single minute. Even during intensive ping testing, U-Verse never has lost more then a few packets during any 24-hour period. Furthermore, the speed of U-Verse has been remarkably consistent, always ranging between 16 and 17 mbit down and about 1.4 mbit up, no matter the time of day.

While Sunflower's internet service is very fast at certain times of day, it frequently slows down during evenings or other times of heavy network use, sometimes to less then half of the speed we were paying for. Furthermore, the internet services would occasionally go down, sometimes for a few minutes, other times for longer. During the last 6 months, our Sunflower uptime was 99.14%, and U-Verse's (over the past 4 weeks) was 99.99%.

The other primary reason we went with U-Verse was because U-Verse does not have bandwidth overage fees or any kind of bandwidth limits. Although we have been careful with Sunflower and managed to avoid any bandwidth overage charges, having "the meter running" all the time was annoying, and we worried that we could always be surprised with an unexpected charge. With U-Verse we do not have this worry. One could almost think of the $15 extra for U-verse as an insurance policy...it buys peace of mind not having to worry about bandwidth overages.

The Internet victor: AT&T U-Verse

Addendum....Advice for the losing team on what they can do to win a customer back...

So, for now we are with U-Verse for our Internet. What could Sunflower do to win us back as Internet customers? The main things would be to raise their internet bandwidth caps to a level where they would not be a worry (but would still deter immense hogs). Comcast has set a cap of 250 GB, way above Sunflower's current 70 GB limit. Sunflower could follow Comcast's lead here. They can also improve the speed and reliability of their network. A new cable internet standard called DOCSIS 3 may provide much greater speeds and more reliability. When Sunflower rolls this out (rumors have it coming later this fall), they might win some customers back, us included.

The Verdict: Television

We've decided to stick with the local cable company, Sunflower Broadband (with an assist from TiVo) for our television service. U-Verse had some exciting features, but in the end, these additional features were not worth an additional $25 or so per month (for the television portion of the bill), especially given our bias toward the TiVo UI and experience.

The quality of the HD signal ended up being a push. Neither U-Verse nor Sunflower seemed dramatically better or worse then the other. The only noticeable difference was that U-Verse's picture seemed somewhat darker (something others had noticed). Actual watch-ability of HD on both services was fine. As an aside, during my research, I found this great guide to the interpretation and understanding of HD quality, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

When we compared the two providers, the main advantages of U-Verse was the seamless integration of the service on multiple TVs, excellent online and remote scheduling, and a greater selection of channels. U-Verse's main disadvantages were that it was more expensive, the UI of the devices was inferior to TiVo, and it wasn't as good with advanced recording options (such as prioritizing shows and padding recording times).

The main advantage of Sunflower/TiVo was a cheaper price, more local channels, the excellent TiVo UI experience, and (at least for now) clear QAM support for the digital cable, allowing viewing on my Mac and other TVs without needed a set-top box. Sunflower's main disadvantages include the lack of seamless integration between TVs, poorer remote scheduling (although TiVo has been beefing this up), and the random 'jumping' of QAM TV channels.

In the end, the main determining factors came down to UI and price. Minor differences aside, both systems offer all the same major channels in HD that we would ever watch. Both offer DVR capability, and the picture quality of both is very similar. In the end, we decided the small advantages of U-Verse television in some areas were not worth an extra $25 per month.

The television victor: Sunflower Broadband.

Addendum....Advice for the losing team on what they can do to win a customer back...

So, for now we are with Sunflower for our television. What could AT&T do to win us over as television customers? The main thing would be for them to work on their pricing structure, as they are simply not competitive with 'standard' cable prices. They could start with killing the ridiculous extra $10 charge merely to watch HD television, and try to get the price for the typical 2 to 4 television household down within 10 or 15 bucks of cable. I understand they will always charge a bit more for some of the advanced features they provide (such as the seamless integration and such) but price is still an area they must work on. The second thing AT&T could do is hire a few human interface design experts to go over the set-top box UI, both on the screen and the remote control and try to make it a bit less annoying. TiVo is the gold standard, but in spite of my love towards TiVo, it is somewhat dated...so combine the usability of TiVo with a modern look and feel, and AT&T will have a winner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Over halfway there...

So we are over halfway through our month long U-Verse trial, and we are finally at the point where we have a decent amount of real-world experience with the services to start thinking about whether we want to go all U-Verse, all Sunflower, or a mix of the two.

Here are some brief updates...


As I mentioned earlier the internet has been rock solid since our service call two weeks ago. In over two weeks of ping testing, I have had a single test cycle (out of several thousand) with any lost packets. Additionally, there has been no actual downtime so far. This is better then I have ever gotten with Sunflower, even after their network improvements at our node last Spring.

Internet speed has stayed pretty consistent at about 17 mbit down and about 1.45 mbit up. We tested dozens of times the first few days after we got our line serviced two weeks ago, and only occasionally since then, and have not seen any speed dips (other then when expected, such as during a big download). For comparison, our Sunflower Gold has been bouncing around between 10-18 mbit during recent evening tests.

We did discover, to our annoyance, that AT&T blocks outbound traffic through port 25 on their network, making it impossible to send email using the standard SMTP protocol. This doesn't affect things if you use web-based email (like GMail) or AT&T's own email servers, but if you use a third party server, you will be dead in the water. Luckily, you can call AT&T and they will unblock it if you request. We did this via a brief online chat with an AT&T rep and port 25 was opened up with no problems.

Score after 2 weeks: lean towards U-Verse. The service costs $15 more per month over Sunflower, but in return we get more reliable speed, faster upload, and no bandwidth limit.


I've spent a lot of time examining U-Verse's and Sunflower's HD signals. I've watched a variety of shows, a lot of football, some fast-action nature shows and the usual prime-time dramas and comedies, and HD quality is quite similar. I give Sunflower a slight edge in overall HD quality. It seems a bit "tighter" especially handling faster motion (such as sports). The picture on Sunflower is also a bit brighter. U-Verse seems to be darker, which is especially noticeable in images with high contrast, such as the shadows and sun that mark outdoor scenes in "Lost." U-Verse seems a bit better handling very slow scenes, and sometimes human actors appear sharper with U-Verse. Overall, it is very close, and I suspect that the compression each provider uses probably explains the differences.

Honestly, I could be comfortable watching HD with either service. Neither one is remotely unwatchable, and neither one is a lot better then the other in quality.
U-Verse offers a lot more channels then Sunflower in the same service level, but of all these channels, only a few are ones we would ever want to watch. The ability to seamlessly watch recorded shows in multiple rooms is a huge win for U-Verse, but even after two weeks, I still do not like their remote control or UI, although I have gotten more used to it.

Score after two weeks: Leaning towards Sunflower. It's not just that I love my TiVo (although that is part of it). U-Verse is more expensive for television, and the added value so far doesn't appear to justify it. Slightly better HD quality doesn't hurt Sunflower's case either.


The phone service has been perfectly fine, with one glaring exception. U-Verse phone service has some major problems when you use it to access automated systems that require you to make menu selections via touch tones (i.e. "Press 2 to be transferred to sales")

These tones are called DTMF tones and the U-Verse system has issue "translating" them to VOIP and back again. This issue doesn't happen all the time to all people. Based on some forum research, it looks like it depends on the local phone, the system at the other end, and the fickleness of AT&T's systems in the middle.

Score after two weeks: mild lean towards U-Verse. Better value for the money then Sunflower, but not being able to do something as basic as hit touch tones definitely harshes my mellow

So, how does it look overall? If I had to guess, I would say we will probably end up keeping U-Verse for phone and internet, and Sunflower for television. However, things could still change. It's not over til it's over!

Some snapshots of the U-Verse residential gateway config screens

This post is for geeks only...I finally got around to taking some screenshots of the various more interesting status and configuration screens inside the U-Verse residential gateway router. The router is a 2-Wire 3800HGV-B in case you are interested. These are all screenshots from the router's various configuration pages. I did take the liberty of removing private info like our IP address and other such data, so if you see a blank spot or a truncated number, it is me, not the router's UI.

Main Summary
This is the main screen you see when you go to the router's web interface. It has an overview of the network, link status and so forth.

Broadband Link Overview
A brief overview of the DSL link

Broadband Link Details
Much juicier information on the overall state of the DSL link. Note the true speed of the DSL link is 25 megabits. Only 18 is given over to data, which means the remaining 7 is for the TV and voice services. It would be great if AT&T offered the full 25 Mbit as an option in lieu of TV, but alas...

Broadband Link Errors
This page gives a list of all the various errors the DSL line may have experienced. From my research, the big warning signs of a bad connection are link retrains, errors and timeouts, as well as uncorrected blocks and severely errored seconds. Our screenshot has some scary numbers, but thankfully they were all from a service call 2 weeks ago while the AT&T guy was fiddling with our line. Since then it has been smooth (knocking on wood)

Private Network Summary
The main overview of the status of the private network, showing hosts and any active pinholes. You'll note two devices, *.65 and *.64; those are actually the two TV set-top boxes. They are just IP devices on the LAN.

Wireless Settings
The standard wireless settings page. It offers the usual security options. Out of the box, the unit has WPA turned on, which is good.

NAT Mapping Settings
This is the page where you set NAT mapping (pinholes) for games and such. The router comes with a huge list of predefined ports for mapping, and allows user-defined ports as well, both TCP and UDP individual ports or ranges. You can also place a device in the DMZ, although I have not yet tested this specifically.

Add a custom NAT mapping
The dialog to add a custom port mapping.

Firewall Settings
This is the router's overall firewall settings page. It offers basic protection from a variety of common attacks.

Private Network Address Allocator
This page allows you to set up address allocation for devices on the LAN. If offers both DHCP and static addresses, and you can also MAC address lock an address in the DHCP range to a specific device (so a device that uses DHCP will always get the same IP from the server)

Advanced Networking
This page allows you to set up some advanced features, including public routed subinterfaces and changing the IP range for the private network.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Quick tour of some of the U-Verse TV UI

Some highlights...

Main U-Verse screen
The main screen you see when you "enter" the U-Verse menu system. Note the "blue everywhere" color scheme and the light blue selected item (which is easier to see in the photo then on the actual TV screen)

U-Verse device info
The "System Info" for the box. WinCE!

U-Verse Video On Demand menu
Main VOD menu

U-Verse interactive menu
This is the applications menu; each of these actually launches an "app" for things like local weather, and such.

U-Verse schedule
The list of scheduled recordings.

U-Verse recorded shows
The menu for already-recorded shows.

U-Verse recording set-up screen
The main screen for setting up a new recording.

U-Verse program guide
The main program guide view.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some quick updates on U-Verse internet and TV

Some brief updates and observations about U-Verse so far...

- After our adjustment last Wednesday, the internet has been rock-solid for the past week, about 17 mbit down and 1.45 mbit up. I've gotten consistent real-world download speeds around 1.5 megabytes per second while downloading a 5 GB Apple software package, and over 2 megabytes per seconds while downloading a (perfectly legal, thank you!) concert via BitTorrent.

- Internet uptime has been almost perfect. I show a 99.99% uptime (measured based on pings of AT&T's nameserver ever minute). For comparison, Sunflower's uptime over the past three months (as measured to their nameserver) is 99.14%

- I've noticed a bit of latency, caused by U-Verse interleaving. Nothing that bothers me, but if I were a gamer, it might be a concern. I also ran into what I think was the U-Verse Mac DNS bug which I worked around by changing my nameservers. Since then I have had no problems.

- TV-wise, I have been out of town too much to watch a lot of TV, although that will change this weekend, when I plan to log some serious football-watching, which will be a great test of the HD performance while watching a fast, bright show. We did watch some of Planet Earth in HD, and during fast motion scenes (chases, etc.) you could really notices the blurring as compression reared its ugly head. Of course, the TiVo does this too on cable, but it seems to be a bit better and handling this stuff. I need to do some frame by frame comparisons.

- The TV UI is really bad. The "menu item selected" is very difficult to discern. It is a slightly lighter shade of blue, and many times it is nearly impossible to determine what item on the screen is selected. This is such a basic fail, and so easily rectified (how about a contrasting highlight color?) that I just don't understand.

- Even when the set-top box is in standby mode, the front of it has a hideously bright light that will illuminate a darkened bedroom like a high-beam. I have to prop a book up in front of my box before I go to bed. This is another case of sloppy design.

- I am still frustrated with the remote control and the overall functional UI. I really don't know how much of this is just me needed to overcome my prejudice towards 10 years of TiVoing. I want to give U-Verse' TV a fair chance, so I need to work at this!

- We had some initial problems with our internet speed. It was widely variable, ranging between 1 mbit and 17 mbits. We had to have AT&T come out for a service call. Diagnostics showed nothing obviously wrong, but there was still an issue. We learned that AT&T's Quality of Service for U-Verse is 70% of advertised speed, meaning speeds under 12.6 mbit were something that qualified for service, but speeds higher then that (even though less then the 18 we paid for) are not. To make a long story short, the AT&T guy basically tried "shotgun debugging" -- he replaced the Residential Gateway...no luck. He then change the port for our home on the VRAD...that appeared to do the trick, and since then, like I said, our speed has been much better and consistant.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Photos of U-Verse equipment

Here's some quick photos of the main pieces of U-Verse equipment:

The residential gateway box and UPS (with a regular paperback book next to it to show size)

The standard remote control

The main set top box (with the DVR inside) (with a AA battery next to it to show size)

The secondary set top box (with a AA battery next to it to show size)

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Early impressions of the U-Verse iPhone app

After our installation of U-Verse, I grabbed the U-Verse iPhone app which promises the ability to remote-managed your DVR, similar to what is available for the TiVo (albeit for TiVo, via a webapp, not a native app)

I haven't used the app too much yet, but I do have some early first impression, and they are decidedly mixed.

First, the plus side: the app does what it says. You open it, sign n, and you can managed your U-Verse DVR. You can see the shows already recorded (and delete them if you want), as well as see a schedule of what is coming up. You can search for shows, and either recording single episodes, or schedule series recordings (season passes in TiVo-speak). Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be an obvious way to customize series recordings, for example, setting it to only record new episodes and not repeats.

You can also do basic activities like browse the program guide, and set favorite shows to make finding things easy. Settings are available for preferring HD and whether or not to show "mature" shows (I don't think they mean "Golden Girls" either!) The UI was tolerable, no the greatest, not the worst, and it did seem rather slow, even over WiFi to switch tabs and load data.

So if the "good" is that the app basically does what it says it does, the "bad" is that, well, sometimes it doesn't! After a few successful launches, last night I fired up the app, and it simply would not work - just sitting there spinning, never loading program guides or letting us see our shows. This went on over several launches, and finally I gave up, deleted the app, re-installed it, and suddenly, it started working again. A brief perusal of the app's reviews on iTunes shows that I am not the first person to have this problem. I certainly hope it was a fluke, because a bug like this would be a deal-killer for this app.

The U-Verse Install Process

As one of the first folks among my friends and colleagues with U-Verse, one of the most common questions is "what is the install process like?"

AT&T allocates up to 6 hours for an install, and ours ended up being very close to that, but the amount of time it takes depends greatly on what services you order and how much in-home work is required.

Our own process wouldn't be a perfect example, because we are a bit more knowledgeable then the usual subscriber. We also did some preparation work (setting up TVs and so forth) in advance, and we knew exactly what we wanted. Even with these caveats, 90% of the installation could be fairly generalized.

The AT&T installer called about half an hour in advance to let us know he was on the way, and when he arrived, he introduced himself, gave us a welcome package with some documentation, as well as his personal business card with his cell number (a nice touch!) He then verified with us what services we ordered, and did a brief walk around the house.

The purpose of the walkaround is so the installer can get an idea of what the wiring is like in the home, as well as the general layout (where TVs and computers are and such). He also takes a look at the home's telephone network interface box. At this point, he left our home for about 45 minutes to "turn on" our service at the VRAD. When he was done here, he came back and now, for the first time, could measure the actual capability of our home to receive service (prior to this, our "readiness" for service was purely theoretical). Basically, he was checking the actual distance from our home to the VRAD and the amount of throughput we got...the strength of the VDSL signal.

In our case, the throughput was fine for the top level service profile, which allows for multiple HD streams as well as internet and phone. At this point, the technician talked nitty-gritty about wiring with us. In many homes, they may try to use existing coax cable. This was not an option for us, since we are keeping our Sunflower service. Thus the installer needed to run some new cat 5e ethernet cable.

We discussed where the residential gateway box (the central "hub") would go, and decided on a first floor office as the most central location. The installer then asked us where we wanted the holes for the wires drilled in each room where there was a TV. This was a very collaborative discussion about the network and wiring layout; if the customer wasn't as technical as were were, I imagine the installer might have been more prone to use his own judgment. I was very impressed with how the AT&T tech worked with us and listened to our needs and requested locations for the new wiring.

The next couple hours were essentially spent by the gentleman actually running wiring. When he was finished, the overall network topology was essentially DSL into the home (via ethernet) to the residential gateway. From the gateway, there are four outbound cable runs: two television, one hardwired PC, and a backfeed into the home's main telephone interface (feeding all the phones in the home with a normal dial tone, which the gateway converts to VOIP).

When the wiring was finished, the AT&T tech then installed the residential gateway, which is about the size of a Playstation 3, along with a Belkin UPS (required to provide power for the phone system during outages). Before physically hooking up the main cabling to the gateway, he tested the actual, in-house signal strength of the VDSL signal to make sure everything was is spec. It was, and so now at this point, we had internet; the gateway was operational.

Next up, installation of two set top boxes: a DVR in the living room, and a satellite unit in the bedroom. The boxes needed a brief initialization and a firmware update before they were ready. We verified that each box could get a good HD signal. Interestingly enough the first box he tried in the bedroom was "bad" so a second box was tried, which worked fine. I already had prepared for the boxes by hooking up HDMI and audio cabling as needed; I don't think the average customer may have done this, and I am not sure if the techs have cabling with them or not (I suspect they do, to use as needed).

With the internet and boob tube up and running, the last item of business was telephone. We are almost five hours into the process by now. I didn't pay much attention to this portion of the process; the tech was working in the basement, hooking the outbound cable from the gateway into the home telephone network interface box. I know he was testing each phone jack with a tone generator.
We also called our alarm company to verify that the alarm system was working fine with the new system (it was, and I forgot how loud that damn thing is!)

The install was finished now. We talked briefly with the installer at this point about our concern (which I noted in yesterday's post) with some dips in signal we noticed, and he said that we should give AT&T a chance to replace the line from our home to the pole before getting too concerned. He also re-iterated that we could call him personal phone number (on his card) any time during the first 10 days after install to follow up on this. This is great customer service off the bat, but I am honestly worried that after 10 days, we will be in the usual out-sourced AT&T hell should anything not be working right. Time will tell.

As an aside, the tech specifically asked us at the end of the install if we wanted him to show us the details of the television interface; we declined, as we want to figure these things out for ourselves. However, average users can probably expect at least some time at the end of the install for basic int ructions from the installer on the new system.

So, in a nutshell, that is how the process went. From start to end, about six hours, of which about half was wiring-related, a quarter equipment installs, and the remaining quarter prep work outside the house.

And yes, someone does have to be home the whole time. Are in our case, two geeky someones.

Friday, September 4, 2009

U-Verse is a go - scattered thoughts

We now have U-Verse, up and running in parallel with our existing Sunflower Broadband connection. The U-Verse installer was a real professional, ran cat5e to all the needed rooms in our home. We have the residential gateway in my office. I am connected to it via wireless (from two feet away) and keeping Sunflower wired for now, so it should be a good comparison. The AT&T DSL check showed plenty of bandwidth, and initial speed tests are showing about 8-16 megabit down, and a solid 1.5 up. There is some variability in the down speed which is a bit concerning (and we noticed some brief pixelization in an otherwise pristine TV signal), but we have an old phone line outside which AT&T will replace in the next few days; once that variable is eliminated, we will be more able to determine if this is a concern or not.

A quick equipment rundown for those interested. The residential gateway is a 2-Wire, the two set-top boxes are Motorola, and we were provided with a Netopia USB wireless adapter.

I've grabbed the iPhone app and already started to schedule some shows for recording, and set up my monitoring system, so this game is on! I promise I will upload full details, including more equipment specs, screen shots, photos and a look at the TV and Residential Gateway interfaces in the days and weeks ahead.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The night before...and a some notes about customer service

It's the night before U-Verse, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a.....eh, never mind.

Yeah, the big game begins tomorrow, Sunflower Broadband vs AT&T U-Verse for triple-play supremacy in Lawrence, Kansas. Well, at least in one residence in Lawrence.

I have a nice little to do list to take care of this evening, including prepping our AV equipment and televisions, clearing away some clutter to allow for easy access for wiring, and deciding where to places various pieces of equipment. I am hoping the guy AT&T sends out tomorrow is a competent, friendly professional who will discuss our needs and desires with the service, be considerate of our property and home, and do an excellent job.

Points off if he is a slob, doesn't listen (major points off if he tries to blow off the need for installing new CAT-5e wiring runs so we can simultaneously keep our existing Sunflower service) or otherwise doesn't put the best face forward for U-Verse.

This segues into a brief note about customer service and the impressions I will have, as a customer, with AT&T. Frankly, I have never been impressed with AT&T's customer service in any form. AT&T is the worst part of my otherwise great experience with the iPhone. AT&T's customer service even during the U-Verse ordering process has been crappy. We protect our credit by utilizing a lock service on our credit reports, meaning (since AT&T runs a credit report when you sign up) we had to call AT&T's call center to actually order, and they couldn't even tell us which credit service they use until we called several times, and they had a difficult time applying the web special pricing to our account.

AT&T also ignored our requested timing for the install with no explanation. We had asked for a Saturday, but they scheduled us for a weekday. We called to find out why, and it turns out when you get a phone number ported, it has to be a business day. Great, how about making your back-end system a bit smarter? When we actually tried to change the install day to another weekday, we spoke to someone who had a very poor understanding of the English language, and it took a while to even make this simple change.

If AT&T is this bad when we are trying to order, what's going to happen when we actually have an issue? I've heard rumors that the tier 2 (US-based) AT&T support is actually very good. We shall find out.

Sunflower's customer service has two huge advantages over AT&T's - it is local, and everyone speaks English. Local isn't always great (the banjo-playing kid in "Deliverance" was local too!) but in this case, it is a big advantage.

On the other hand, our actual support experiences with Sunflower have been very mixed over the years. This past spring, we had significant internet slowdown issues, with solid data showing exactly what and where the problem was, but Sunflower blew us off, argued with us, initially sent a tech to our home who was incredibly rude, and only finally admitted and fixed the issues after additional extensive prodding from us.

That was Jekyll. Thankfully, Mr. Hyde showed up this very week, when we had a cable modem outage. I tweeted to Sunflower's Twitter account about it, and they quickly communicated with me, and had a friendly, competent tech call me within 15 minutes. He quickly diagnosed the problem (having to do with stale routing tables in our cable modem after a Sunflower back-end change) and had us back online quickly. It was great.

Anyway, that is the lay of the land....television, internet, phone, and customer service...and behind it all, obviously the price and relative value of the two services. Over the next month, we will see who wins...most importantly, I think no matter which company (or a mix of both) that we choose to go with a month from now, the people of Lawrence win, by having multiple choices to choose from for these services.

Game on!

PS: If you missed earlier segments of the U-Verse vs Sunflower preview, check out our look at telephone service, television, and internet.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Telephone (or "who cares?")

Ah, landline telephone. The sickly third leg of the triple-play tripod is definitely not one that is very important to most people. These days when everyone has cell phones, what is even the point of a landline anymore, outside of folks with home alarm systems or perhaps a business owner?

Well, in the interest of completeness, I will briefly note that both AT&T U-Verse and Sunflower Broadband both offer landline telephone service. AT&T, in a refreshing display of simplicity compared to their dozens of TV and internet plans, offers just two phone plans, prices at $25 and $30, and Sunflower has three plans, rangingin price from $19 to $40.

While both Sunflower and AT&T's top plan includes unlimited long distance, and the usual bells and whistles (called ID, call forwarding, voicemail and such) there are a few major differences under the hood, and ironically, for such a pedestrian feature, phone service appears to be one area where U-Verse has a somewhat revolutionary improvement upon traditional phone service. Since it is all integrated into the residential gateway that controls the internet and TV, AT&T can do things like display incoming call information on the TV, advanced messaging and selective forwarding, and allow remote access to voicemail and call logs.

The downside? U-Verse uses an IP-based phone technology. While you can still plug any old phone into the phone jacks in your house, the Residential Gateway is the "gatekeeper" for the phone system, and it has some issues with home alarm systems and doesn't function during extended power outages. Additionally, if the broadband network goes down, you may be left without any phone service, including 911 service. AT&T recommends that you have a cell phone available to reach emergency services if you use their phone service. This is not a deal killer for us, but it might be for some people.

It is possible to configure U-Verse to use the broadband connection for TV and Internet and keep the phone done the traditional way, and for long-term use, this might be a better choice for many people, but for one month at least, we're going to use the phone as part of U-Verse so we can report how well it works. We will test with our alarm system (although we don't plan to test 911 :-) as well as the more fun advanced TV integration features and let you know how it goes.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Internet

Along with television, internet access is probably the most important broadband service out there, and maybe the most important one to any geek worth their salt. We've been subscribers to Sunflower's top-level Gold internet tier for the past several years, and will be getting AT&T U-Verse's top-level internet packages, called Max 18, allowing for a good comparison of each company's best offerings, in the areas of speed, reliability, and performance.

First, a quick look at each company's best offering:

FactorSunflower Broadband Gold*AT&T U-Verse Max 18
Download Speed21 mbps18 mbps
Upload Speed.76 mbps1.5 mbps
Bandwidth50 GB/monthunlimited

* I have heard rumors that Sunflower's Gold service level will gain increased speeds and bandwidth later this fall as they adopt a new cable technology called DOCSIS 3.0 but this is not available yet so I can't yet compare it..

Both AT&T and Sunflower offer other service levels as well, generally offering less speed (and less bandwidth in Sunflower's case) for a cheaper price. Sunflower has an additional level of service called Palladium which does away with any bandwidth limits, and has variable speed levels.

There are technical differences in how Sunflower and AT&T deliver their internet service. As I mentioned, Sunflower uses the standard for all cable internet in America, called DOCSIS. The best way to think about how it is delivered is that the internet is essentially a "channel" on the cable system, except rather then being able to "tune" it with your TV or set top box, it gets "tuned in" by a device called a cable modem, which you can either rent or buy. Cable modems are made by many manufacturers and can be bought at stores like Best Buy. This is a nice benefit of the DOCSIS standard - you don't have to rent a special box, you can buy any compatible model and it can be used on Sunflower's network. Furthermore, many DOCSIS cable modems provide no routing functionality, so technically experienced folks can use all kinds of third party routers with cable internet service to construct sophisticated firewalls and routing systems.

AT&T's U-Verse internet is technically similar to the DSL service that has been offered for a while, although the enhanced bandwidth provided by the VRADs used for U-Verse allow for much faster speeds then previous types of DSL. Unlike the world of cable, there are no independent options for U-Verse's "DSL Modem" - the U-Verse packages includes a device called the Residential Gateway which handles the Internet networking and routing. It cannot be replaced. While this fully integrated device is a boon to less technical users, more experienced users who may have specific routing needs may find themselves frustrated with the built-in router and its limitations. Part of my evaluation of U-Verse this next month will be exploring the functionality of limitations of the Residential Gateway and seeing how adaptable it is to my geeky needs.

Of course, raw download speed isn't the only way I will be evaluating the two services. Upload speed is important as well, especially for people like me who routinely access my computer from outside my home, as well as for uploading movies and photos to the web, and of course peer-to-peer file sharing. Another area of concern in the evaluation will be to issue of bandwidth. Sunflower limits the amount of bandwidth you can use every month, although additional bandwidth can be purchased. We generally manage to avoid overage charges by keeping careful watch on our meter, and I am looking forward to not having this worry with U-Verse. But, is this "freedom" going to be worth an extra $15 per month? Only time will tell.

Another area I want to keep an eye on is network reliability, specifically slowdowns and outages. I run network monitoring software that automatically keeps an eye on the speed and reliability of the internet connection from my computer. I have months of data on how our Sunflower connection has performed, and I want to compare this to how U-Verse does. Will there be unexpected network drop-outs or congestion-related slowdowns in the evenings? My testing should be able to identify if this occurs.

There's only four more days until our U-Verse install. Still to come before then, a brief review of the phone options, and a discussion of customer service.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tech Notes...What is a VRAD and why should you care?

One factor that might make the decision about whether to choose Sunflower, U-Verse, or any other provider easy is whether you can actually get the service at your home, business, spider-hole, bunker, or other place of dwelling.

Sunflower Broadband is the clear leader in Lawrence availability as of this writing. You can get cable-based broadband basically everywhere within the city limits of Lawrence, and even a few areas outside Lawrence. Coaxial cable has been a part of the Lawrence infrastructure for a while, and Sunflower enhanced their network earlier this decade with an improved fiber network backbone serving all of Lawrence. So, if you live in Lawrence, you can count on getting Sunflower Broadband service at your location.

It is more difficult for AT&T. They have access to a community-wide network as well, but it is the old copper phone network, which as I mentioned in an earlier post, doesn't have the bandwidth for broadband cable and internet services like coaxial cable does. AT&T's solution is to run a fiber optic cable backbone to specific termination points located in individual neighborhoods, and from these termination points (which are called VRADs), they then have the ability to push broadband services to individual homes. VRADs look like large beige cabinets, and you can see them being installed around Lawrence if you have a sharp eye. This is an example of what a VRAD looks like.

As an aside, in some parts of the country, AT&T (and competitors like Verizon) actually run fiber lines to each house. This gives amazing amounts of bandwidth, dwarfing anything else around, but it is also much more expensive for the service provider. Eventually, though, fiber to the home will probably become as common as electricity and water to the home.

Anyway, because AT&T has to install the VRADs in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, it is taking them a while to roll U-Verse out to our entire city. AT&T needs to find a spot in each neighborhood to place the VRAD, then arrange to have electricity and a fiber cable run to it. Once a VRAD is in your neighborhood, and AT&T's own testing is complete, they can provide service. Whether you can get service depends on how close you are to the VRAD, as measured in the actual feet the phone wires travel between the VRAD and your house (not a straight line either, as phone wires may zag around). You are usually in good shape if you are within a few thousand feet of the VRAD. I don't know for sure, but I would expect AT&T will be spacing them out so that eventually all of Lawrence will be within a service area.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Television

First up is everyone's favorite waster of time, the boob tube...television.

Both Sunflower and U-Verse offer a comprehensive set of television packages, roughly divided into four tiers, ranging from a low end featuring over-the-air stations plus a few basic cable channels to high-end packages featuring hundreds of channels, including premium networks. We are going to be comparing the mid-range offerings of the two providers - plans that offer, in my opinion, the most "bang for the buck" -- You get all the popular cable networks, a decent amount of sports, music channels, and all the usual non-premium channels you expect to get with cable TV.

Sunflower calls this level of service "Bronze" and AT&T calls it "U-200".

Price-wise, both are fairly similar. U-Verse's U-200 is $64 per month, plus extra fees for things like HD service and additional televisions (the service includes 1 set-top box/DVR). Sunflower's Bronze service is $56 a month, plus extra fees for additional HD-DVRs and set top boxes (Bronze service includes 1 standard definition set-top box). We actually use a Tivo currently with our Sunflower service, so we do not need to rent a DVR, but to keep comparisons equal, this is what it would cost to equip a typical home with 3 TVs with each provider, if you rent the DVRs and set-top boxes:

DescriptionSunflower BronzeAT&T U-200
Base Package$56$64
HD Feenone/included$10
TV #1 - HD - DVR$10 additional fee to upgrade to HD DVRnone/included
TV #2 - HD - no DVR$10 set top box$7 set top box
TV #3 - Standard Definition - No DVR$5 set top box$7 set top box

So, roughly the same. Obviously adding or changing a TV here or there might make a $10 difference either way, and your price may change if you don't need a set top box (which is an option for Sunflower, see below for technical details), but it is fair to say you will likely spend close to the same amount of money, if you have three or less TV sets in your home, perhaps with a slight edge in price to Sunflower.

Before I got any further, I need to digress into geek-ville. The fact is that fundamentally, cable-based TV (which Sunflower provides) and IP-based TV (which U-Verse provides) are fundamentally different "behind the scenes" and these technical differences explain much of the limitations, and advantages of each service.

Warning....several paragraphs of technical stuff ahead. But I really try to explain it in a non technical way :-)

Cable providers generally broadcast all their channels all the time. This basically means that all the channels your service provides are always flowing through the wires into your house, even when the TV is off. When you are tuned to ESPN, VH-1 and hundreds of other channels are being pumped into your house along side of it. Since this "river" of programming is always flowing, you can generally plug in as many TVs as you want into the coax outlets in your home, and access programming freely, as easy as simply "plugging in."

This has changed a little bit in recent years, as cable companies have moved towards digital programming. Many TVs need a digital box to pick up the new digital cable channels, but fundamentally, you can basically plug any TV into the wall and get some cable channels. Sunflower offers a bunch of "basic" channels without requiring any type of box, and you can pick up the entire gamut of their lineup with a modern TiVo (which is what we use), or by using any newer TV that can tune in digital cable ("QAM").

The down side of this ease of use is that there is limited interactivity. Sunflower (and other cable providers) offer video-on-demand, where you can interactively order programming. This requires a digital box, and often uses a technology called switched digital video, where the "river" of incoming programming is actually switched and controlled "upstream" in response to the users' requests. Traditional cable television is gradually moving towards this more interactive, switched digital future, but for now, a great benefit of traditional cable TV, as provided by Sunflower in Lawrence, is that anything can plug into it...new TVs, old TVs, digital and analog tuner cards for computers, and so on. A set-top box might get you added features, but it is not a requirement....yet.

So, here comes AT&T with their U-Verse system. They faced a big problem.
At its core, the coaxial cable that Sunflower (and other cable services around the country) offer has much more capacity then the copper phone wire used by AT&T. So, how can AT&T possibly provide hundreds of channels over a pipe that is many times narrower then coaxial cable? Their answer is that rather then provide the "stream" of hundreds of channels to your home, they instead only transmit the channels you are actively watching or recording. So if your TV is on Comedy Central and the kids are watching Nickelodeon, those are the only two channels that flow into your house at the time. Change a channel, and AT&T transmits this request "upstream" to the fiber box in your neighborhood, which switches the channel and starts sending you the new channel you requested.

Because every channel change and other request is sent "upstream," the AT&T system allows for some fairly sophisticated interactive features, such as a variety of "applications" that can be run on the TV,as well as sophisticated time-and-place shifting of the channels you are watching. This enables features such as pausing a show in one room of the house and "picking it up" in another room, or instantly transmitting recorded shows between TVs.

While the U-Verse system represents an elegant technical solution to a tricky problem, it is not without its own downsides. First is the limited bandwidth. AT&T claims that they support up to two HD channels and two standard definition channels at the same time. This means if you have 5 TVs in your house, two of them must be watching the same channel. Furthermore, since the U-Verse system requires its own custom set-top boxes to function, each TV must have one of these boxes installed. In addition to the cost of rental, this means you can't just "plug in" to U-Verse or use your own equipment (such as a TiVo or computer tuner card); You need to use AT&Ts equipment.

U-Verse and traditional cable TV cannot co-exist on the same physical wires. During our trial, we will continue to use our home's coaxial cable for Sunflower, while running U-Verse over a set of parallel CAT-5e ethernet cables, which will be installed as part of the U-Verse installation.

We have a television set with two HDMI inputs. One input will have our TiVo HD, connected to Sunflower, while the other will have the AT&T U-Verse box. This will give us the ability to see the same programming provided from both sources, and compare the quality. Both U-Verse and Sunflower compress their HD signals, but the compression may differ. We plan to watch a mixture of shows -- sports, movies, action, talk shows, and even some standard def programming to fairly compare the two services.

OK, most of the super geeky stuff is out of the way...

Keep in mind, its not just the channel list and content we are comparing. Part of it is ease of use. We love our TiVo and its famous UI. Will the U-Verse box be like a Mac user switching to Windows? How easy will it be to do basic tasks like skipping commercials, setting up a season pass, or finding a favorite show.

I am also interested in how U-Verse handles local channels. Their channel lineup contains the main Kansas City over-the-air networks, but none of the local Lawrence or KU channels Sunflower offers, or any of the Topeka stations. I am also wondering how U-Verse is for sports. I am an avid college football fan, and look forward to being able to watch KU play this fall. It will certainly be a test to see if KU (and other teams I follow) are available on U-Verse as well as Sunflower.

We will find out and let you know, because in the end, it's not about U-Verse or cable...it's about watching The Office and Mythbusters (and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!)

Still to come, previews of the Internet side of the game, as well as some quick looks at the phone and customer service.

U-Verse vs Sunflower: Full-Out Geek Brawl

There are two heavyweight contenders for broadband supremacy in Lawrence, Kansas. They are AT&T's U-Verse and Sunflower Broadband. These two services are the only ones that offer the "triple play" of services: TV, phone, and internet.

Although they provide similar services, the two companies utilize different technologies to connect to the home. Both Sunflower and AT&T utilize fiber optic cable backbones, but neither company actually runs fiber to your house. Sunflower uses coaxial cable to transport data from their fiber network to your house, while AT&T uses copper telephone wiring to transfer data from their fiber network to your house. Sunflower's service is available throughout Lawrence, and AT&T is rapidly rolling out U-Verse, with the expectation that it will be available throughout the city by the end of the year.

We're going to compare the two services. We already subscribe to Sunflower's top-of-the-line Internet service, called Gold, as well as their most popular tier of cable service, called Bronze. We recently signed up for a U-Verse trial, requesting the equivalent level of TV Service (their "200 tier") and their top internet level ("Elite"). During the month we subscribe to both services, I will be doing comparisons of both the internet and TV service and quality, as well as general experiences with both services and companies, from the initial install to the final verdict, to give you an idea of what each one is like, and its plusses and minuses. And of course, as a geek, I will be very interested in sharing as much technical detail about the equipment, configurations, and so forth as I can.

Our U-Verse install is scheduled for the end of next week. Before then, emulating a sports columnist looking at each of the teams before the big game, I'll take a look at what advantages and disadvantages both AT&T and Sunflower bring to the table, what each company is advertising, and what I see as some of their strengths and weaknesses. I will try to be as fair as I can and give an unbiased opinion, documenting our experiences over the next month. Hopefully it will be as interesting for you to read as it is for me to experiment with!