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 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 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 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, 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.