Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rant: How U-verse [sm] Made My Life U-worse

Note: U-verse is a registered service mark of AT&T. As far as I can tell, U-worse is not (although perhaps it should be).

The full details of the U-verse disaster would exceed a reasonable length for a blog post, so I'll just vent over the highlights. Prior to my adventure with U-verse, I had phone service and cheap, slow (but fast enough for me) DSL service from my local telco (part of AT&T) and cable TV service from Comcast. The U-verse marketing people blitzed my part of East Lansing, MI last fall, first with repeated junk mailings (sometimes multiple times in a week), then with door-to-door sales people. I made the mistake of giving it a try. Things to watch out for when the come to your door:

There's no risk (30 day money-back guarantee).
Reality: I actually dealt with two different sales people (the reason unfolds below) and ended up placing two different orders, first for just TV service (I ended up canceling that order) and then for the TV/Internet/phone bundle. The guy who talked me into the first order said there was a 30 day money-back guarantee. The guy who sold me the bundle didn't mention it. Apparently not mentioning it took it off the table (?).
There's no installation fee.
This is true. There is, however, an early termination fee. (How that works in conjunction with the 30 day money-back guarantee is a bit unclear to me.) I terminated after one week (reasons unfold below) and got socked with a $165 early termination fee. Strangely, neither of the two sales reps I spoke to in my house mentioned this fee, nor did the woman who confirmed the service order over the phone. AT&T does not give you a written contract for U-verse, just a work order. (The contract is apparently oral.) The work order specifically mentions waiving any installation fee and says nothing about an early termination fee. That got me wondering about how a fee that is never mentioned ends up in an oral contract. According to a service rep I spoke to over the phone, they send you an e-mail message after the service is ordered and before it is activated. She said the message tells you about the early termination fee and says that activating the service makes you liable for the fee. I'll have to take her word for that, since I have no record of that message (I thought I kept all e-mail from U-verse, and the first message I have is several days after the date she said that one was sent.
You can keep your existing DSL service and just order U-verse TV service.
The final vote on that is 4-2 against. The first marketing rep said yes (so I ordered just TV). The first installation tech said no when he got to my house (so I canceled the order). Later on, a tech support person said yes (if you're keeping score, it's now 2-1 in favor of being able to retain your DSL service). Two other tech support people later said no (bring us to 3-2 against). The deciding vote, for me, was when the local telco sent someone out to hook up my Plain Old Telephone Service again. He said no. As best I can tell, if you get Internet service via dial-up, cable or dish, you can keep what you've got. That may also be true if you get DSL from a telephone company other than AT&T. If you get DSL from AT&T, though, then to get U-verse TV you apparently must get U-verse Internet service (or at least you must give up your existing DSL service). You can still keep your existing phone service, though.
You get your local channels with all U-verse TV packages.
Reality: You get most of them. You may get all of them. Here in East Lansing, we don't. U-verse includes over-the-air channels that are the primary broadcasts for each local station, but if a station puts out multiple broadcasts over what are called subchannels, you don't get those. Bottom line in the Lansing/East Lansing market: we don't get the CW network (carried by the local ABC affiliate on a subchannel) and we don't get two of the three program feeds from the local PBS affiliate. I don't know if we're missing any others.
U-verse picture quality is much better than cable picture quality.
This obviously depends on your cable provider, so Your Mileage May Vary. I do not pay for HD packages (from either Comcast or U-verse), so I can't tell you whose HD feed is better than whose out here. What I can tell you is that on over-the-air channels, you get a much better picture from Comcast. The reason is that most if not all of our local stations broadcast at multiple resolutions, with the higher resolution signals ranging from 480i to 1080i (no 1080p that I can find). Comcast's "digital starter" package, the one I had before the U-verse disaster (and have again), does not carry any cable channels in HD (you have to pay extra for that), but it does carry the higher resolution feeds from the local stations. U-verse provides only NTSC (pre-digital conversion resolution) on the local stations ... unless you pay extra for an HD package, of course. So if you associate resolution with picture quality (as in, you have an HD TV set), the picture quality for the local stations is clearly better with Comcast (plus you actually get the local stations -- see previous point).

A coda to all this: once I finally managed to get my U-verse contract canceled (an ordeal unto itself), I had to hump the U-verse equipment to the local UPS store to send it back -- except the uninterruptible power supply for the gateway, which they will not pay to ship back. It's a bit ironic that the one thing not going back via the UPS is the UPS. Since the UPS is custom-made for their gateway, I can't find any other use for it, although it does make a dandy (if rather bulky) doorstop. But I digress. I took the other equipment to the local UPS store, handed it to the gentleman behind the counter, and prepared to explain the various paperwork to him. Before I could, he yelled back to the shift supervisor "Hey, we've got more AT&T stuff!" So I said "I take it I'm not the first person to bring this stuff in?" and he responded "Oh, no, we get this all the time." Perhaps I'm not the only dissatisfied (ex-)customer out here.

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