CHAMPAIGN – For folks who have griped for years about the cable company's "monopoly," there's now competition.
AT&T has rolled out a system that provides TV, phone and high-speed Internet service and is making it available in some parts of Champaign, Urbana, Savoy, Danville and Tilton.
The "U-verse" system – launched in those areas in late June – provides many of the services Comcast does.
But instead of using coaxial lines as cable systems do, U-verse makes use of bundled phone lines to transmit video, voice and data.
AT&T bills U-verse as "cooler than cable," citing several features exclusive to its system. But some local officials are cool to the approach AT&T has taken in introducing the product.
Because AT&T was awarded a statewide franchise rather than municipal franchises for each city it serves, the company isn't required to provide service in all parts of those cities.
Instead, it can choose what areas it will serve – and so far the company has refused to specify publicly where it has installed U-verse and how soon other areas might get it.
Area residents wondering whether U-verse is available where they live can check a Web site – http://uverse.att.com  – to find out. They can also call a toll-free number or ask company representatives at the AT&T store in Savoy.
Rick Atterberry, chairman of the Champaign-Urbana cable and telecommunications commission, said he's satisfied AT&T isn't concentrating on serving only affluent neighborhoods.
"While AT&T refuses to share copies of their current and planned service areas, we were allowed to see a map at their office, and I was pleased that the areas served now, and in the next two quarters, did span all income levels," Atterberry said in an e-mail to The News-Gazette.
In Urbana, for instance, Alderman Charlie Smyth said he was told of four neighborhoods that would have early access to U-verse:
– An area between Wright Street and Lincoln Avenue extending from Bradley Avenue to Springfield Avenue.
– A neighborhood west of downtown Urbana, extending from Lincoln Avenue to McCullough Street between University and Springfield avenues.
– An area between Vine Street and Philo Road, between Washington Street and Florida Avenue.
– A neighborhood around Crystal Lake Park.
Atterberry said the commission was concerned AT&T wasn't required to serve the entire community – "a major fault in the state franchise."
But he said having limited service areas allows AT&T to roll out competition earlier – and that's good for those who favor competition.
The other major concern Atterberry expressed about U-verse is the way it treats the "public, education and governmental" channels – the so-called PEG channels.
Those channels occupy normal channel positions on Comcast so they can easily be "discovered" by channel surfers, Atterberry said.
Not so with U-verse.
"U-verse places the PEG channels in a Channel 99 on-demand area," Atterberry said. "They are not immediately available to surfers, and it takes a few clicks to get where you want to go."
That poses a problem for people who want to automatically record public meetings on their digital video recorders, said Peter Resnick, another member of the commission.
Resnick said he's disappointed AT&T didn't pursue a local franchise agreement.
"They could have done it years ago, but they waited until they had a more lucrative state agreement," he said.
AT&T introduced U-verse in June 2006 in San Antonio. U-verse TV service is now available in 105 markets across 19 states, said Amanda Harris, the U-verse director for Illinois and Wisconsin. Altogether, U-verse has about 1.5 million customers, she said.
"We are not done with the Springfield and Champaign larger launch," Harris said. "We will continue to roll it out to the community." But she offered no timetable for the expansion, citing proprietary interests.
Harris said some of U-verse's distinguishing features include:
– Total Home DVR, a feature that comes with many U-verse packages that allows customers to record four shows at once. Customers can record shows in one room of their house and play them back on any TV in the home.
"I watch TV in the living room, then pause it and pick it up in the bedroom," Harris said. "My TV follows me."
Full Total Home DVR functionality, however, requires a receiver for each additional TV at a cost of $7 a month each.
– A "U-bar" feature that allows viewers to see a customized "rolling ticker" on the screen showing sports scores and stock prices for the teams and companies they've specified.
– The ability for viewers to see personal photos that they've uploaded to www.flickr.com  on their TV screen.
Comcast has been offering TV, phone and high-speed Internet service for years, said Rich Ruggiero, Comcast's regional vice president for communications and public affairs.
"The phone company is just trying to catch up to where were are today," he stated in an e-mail.
Ruggiero said Comcast offers service throughout its communities, "not just select neighborhoods." He added that Comcast offers basic service, a low-cost option that provides local broadcast channels and 15 to 20 channels overall, with no equipment required and no limit on the number of TVs in the home.
"AT&T requires a set-top box for every TV, at every level of TV service it offers," Ruggiero said.
He also claimed Comcast offers "far more" on-demand movies and shows than AT&T, most available at no additional charge.
The last time Comcast increased its local rates was April 2, 2008, when basic service went from $11.50 a month to $12.50 a month and expanded basic service (with 69 channels) went from $49.75 a month to $52.75 a month.
Comcast currently offers several "double play" options, combining TV and high-speed Internet service, and "triple play" options, combining TV, phone and Internet service.
One triple-play option, for example, offers a $99-a-month rate for 12 months, the conventional rate being $129.99. A double-play option from Comcast carries a $69.99-a-month rate for six months, the normal rate being $84.43.
There are a few differences in how Comcast and AT&T U-verse deliver their services. Generally, AT&T U-verse delivers video signals through fiber-optic cables to a node, and then by copper cable to homes within 2,000 to 3,000 feet (or about a half-mile) of the node.
Mike Smeltzer, director of networking at the University of Illinois, said coaxial cables used by cable companies have a greater capacity for data and video signals than telephone cables do. That's why phone companies bond six to 12 cables together to send television signals, he said.
Smyth, who saw a public demonstration of U-verse before its rollout, called it "a very nice use of the technology."
"I was amazed they can pump video signals across copper," he said.
Smyth said there's a strong possibility he will become a U-verse customer, primarily to take advantage of faster Internet speeds. He currently gets Comcast's basic TV service and uses DSL service from AT&T for his Internet needs. But he thinks U-verse can give him Internet speeds that are several times faster for roughly the same price he pays now.
Beyond the basic price paid for service, customers also should consider the taxes and fees they'll pay on that service.
Champaign customers who get TV service through U-verse will be subject to the city's 5 percent cable TV franchise fee, said Richard Schnuer, the city's finance director.
If they get phone service through U-verse, they'll also have to pay the city's 6 percent telecommunications tax, he added.
"These charges are the same for equivalent services by Comcast and by telephone service providers," Schnuer said, adding there's no city charge on Internet service.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is AT&T U-verse?
It's an alternative to cable and satellite service that offers customers TV, high-speed Internet and phone service via a fiber-optic Internet Protocol network.
Where's it available?
As of late June, AT&T U-verse became available in certain parts of Champaign, Urbana, Savoy, Danville and Tilton, as well as parts of Decatur and Springfield.
AT&T won't disclose which parts of those towns are served, purportedly for competitive reasons, but you can see whether your home is served by going to a Web site – http://uverse.att.com  – and clicking on "Check Availability." Enter your address or, if you have phone service from AT&T, your home phone number.
You can also find out whether your home is served by calling 800-ATT-2020 or visiting the AT&T Illinois store at 1327 Savoy Plaza Lane, Savoy.
How much does it cost, and what do you get?
If you want high-speed Internet or phone service through AT&T U-verse, you must first agree to have TV service from AT&T U-verse.
The cheapest TV packages from AT&T U-verse cost $49 a month. One is the U-family package, which provides up to 70 "family-oriented" channels. The other is the U100 package, which includes up to 130 of the "most-viewed" channels. (In both cases, the channel count includes optional channels.)
Altogether, there are six different TV packages, ranging up to $109 a month. The most expensive, U450, offers up to 390 channels, including 49 premium movie channels and high-definition service.
Do you want high-speed Internet service with that? If so, expect to pay an additional $25 to $65 a month, depending on what level of service you want.
There are six levels. The cheapest, "Express" Internet service, gives you "downstream" speeds up to 1.5 megabytes per second and "upstream" speeds up to 1.0 megabytes per second.
The most expensive, "Max 18" service, give you "downstream" speeds up to 18 megabytes per second and "upstream" speeds of 1.5 megabytes per second.
If you want phone service through AT&T U-verse, tack on another $25 to $30 a month. The $30 package, called "Voice Unlimited," provides unlimited nationwide minutes. The $25 package, called "Voice 250," provides 250 minutes of calls within the U.S., and a 5-cent charge for each minute beyond that.
All told, if you elect to get TV, high-speed Internet and phone service from AT&T U-verse, you could be looking at a base bill of anywhere from $99 to $204 a month – or anywhere from $1,188 to $2,448 a year.
That doesn't include taxes, fees and other charges.
However, there are several promotional offers, most good through Sept. 19, extending discounts or cash-back offers. One, for example, offers TV, Internet and voice for as low as $90 a month, but only for a six-month introductory period. The offers are detailed at the U-verse Web site.