An AT&T official told aldermen Monday the phone giant wants to bring a new video service to Evanston to compete with Comcast cable.

Marc Blakeman, an AT&T regional vice president, said the new internet-protocol-based video service, called U-verse, is delivered over fiber optic lines to distribution boxes called nodes and from there over conventional copper phone lines to the home.

Mr. Blakeman said the cost to consumers for the service is 25 to 42 percent lower than equivalent offerings from Comcast.

He said AT&T is willing to pay fees to the city equivalent to those now paid by Comcast and to deliver public, educational and government access programs over its system.

He added that the system could also make the access channels available to any internet user, not just to those with the AT&T service.

Between 50 and 100 distribution boxes would need to be located on city rights-of-way to provide the service. The boxes are up to five feet high and two to five feet in width and length.

AT&T box

Distribution boxes: Bigger than a fire plug, smaller than a car. (AT&T photo)

Mr. Blakeman said AT&T is not willing to sign a conventional cable franchise agreement with the city but will agree to follow city regulations on placing equipment on city rights-of-way.

He said the company would not guarantee to provide service throughout the city but intended to make the service available in all parts of town.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said, “I believe that its unfair for the people in Evanston to not have choices” in video service providers.

The AT&T video service typically is bundled with internet DSL service from AT&T and Yahoo.

Current monthly pricing for AT&T’s standard 100-channel video offering with 6 Mbps internet service is $74, compared to $95 for a 78-channel video service and 6 Mbps cable modem internet service from Comcast.

However the city-mandated basic cable rate on Comcast, which provides mainly over-the-air channels, is $8.29, a price level that the AT&T service does not offer.

AT&T representatives are scheduled to meet again with city staff members to discuss the service on Feb. 26.

Mr. Blakeman said the company already has agreements with North Chicago, Wayne and Bellwood and is in negotiations with at least four other Chicago-area communities.

Jeannie Sanke, president of the Evanston Community Media Center, the non-profit group that operates the city’s cable access center, said she’s very skeptical of the AT&T proposal.

Ms. Sanke, who did not attend the council committee meeting at which the AT&T proposal was discussed, said, in a phone interview Tuesday, that AT&T has lied about its dealings with other municipalities.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get the price of cable television down,” she said, “any more than electricity prices have declined with deregulation.”

“I don’t think competition keeps rates down in the telecommunications sphere,” she added.

She stressed that Comcast’s basic rate means Evanstonians can get the access channels now for less than $9 a month and voiced doubts that AT&T’s offer to provide them for free over the Internet would be any better.

She also claimed that AT&T would “cherry pick” the areas it chose to serve and said any agreement should require that service be provided to the entire community.

The media center gets more than 90 percent of its roughly $500,000 budget from fees the city requires Comcast to charge its customers.

Customers of satellite television services, including the Dish Network and Direct TV, do not pay the city fees.

Related stories

City may get new video service – Jan. 22, 2007

Cable guys hike rates – Dec. 12, 2006

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation

8 Comments

  1. AT&T
    I would ask Ms. Sanke some questions. First how many Evanston cable subscribers actually take the minimum basic cable service instead of the expanded basic?

    Secondly how certain is she that competition would not lower rates? Just about every community that has had more than one provider has seen cable rates go down. Comcast is rolling in money.

    Why do we not have alacarte service, of the 70+ channels available I doubt that people watch more than 10 to 12 at most. I do not watch ESPN yet I have to pay close to $4 to have that available, whether I watch it or not.

    vito brugliera

    1. Comcast figures
      As the president of a non-profit board and having no affiliation with Comcast as anything but a customer, I cannot answer Mr. Brugliera’s questions to the number of customers paying the minimum service fee, nor can I speak to why Comcast has yet to make a la carte services available, though I have heard they will in the future. I personally would welcome that option.

      As Mr. Smith quoted me in the article, I have yet to see any situation where competition in an industry pushing for deregulation has resulted in a better deal for consumers. Flights are cheaper, but airline service is bordering on intolerable. Electricity did not go down in price, banking fees are higher and interest rates lower since deregulation, and I do not believe for a moment that telecom services will drop their price points even with competition.

      Comcast is rolling in money, but AT&T is rolling in far more, so the fact that they want exceptions to the rules by which Comcast must play strikes me as nothing more than corporate bullying. Comcast must answer to the City of Evanston and to every other municipality in which they deliver services, and they must build out to the entire community. AT&T has plenty of capital to invest, yet they want exceptions to these requirements. So they claim that consumers will be better served, yet they won’t serve all consumers and they will not be held accountable for the service they do or do not provide.

      1. cable service
        The reason I ask about the minimal basic service is that in February 2009 analog signals will no longer be broadcast over the air. Unless a person has a digital tuner converter or subscribes to cable, their analog TV sets will no longer be usable. Nationwide about 70% subscribe to cable, 15% sattelite and the rest over the air for their primary TV sets. Other non primary TV sets amy not be connected to cable. I suspect there will be a huge rate increase at that point.

        I disagree that competition has not benefited TV viewers. Where there is competition the rates are 15 to 25% lower.

        You will not see alacarte unless mandated by the FCC or Congress. The current arangement is too lucrative for those program providers that receive a fee, such as ESPN and cable operators are paid by new or marginal program providers just to get exposure.

        I also think it is wasteful to have to deal with local bureaucracies for every franchise. I hope to see statewide franchising.

        If cable operators can eneter the voice market unhampered, why can’t the telcos do the same with video?

        1. cable service
          The federally mandated switch to digital signal infuriates me, and provides more indication of a trend whereby electronics manufacturers and telecom providers, with the federal government’s assistance, up the ante on consumers. Only those who can afford a new TV set will be able to watch television, not to mention receive any informational programming, in two years. This does not serve consumers and it certainly does not protect our most vulnerable citizens.
          I agree with Mr. Brugliera’s assertion that a rate increase in providing signal will follow, and though we disagree about what competing providers might do to gain market share, I do believe this supports my assertion that the costs charged for providing signal to viewers will rise.
          State franchising, if handled properly and protecting consumers, would be potentially a very positive development, but it must be done carefully. There is already some threat to PEG in certain pending state franchising proposals, and while not everyone watches public access all the time, especially in a town like Evanston where a lot of people watch city council and school board meetings regularly, where many rely on the public access for dissemination of information (not everyone has a computer, either) and where freedom of speech is held very very dear, this is a serious threat.
          Finally, let me clarify that I have nothing against other telecom companies entering the video delivery marketplace. What I object to is the insistence by AT&T that AT&T deserves special consideration and is not held to legally mandated standards like existing providers everywhere are. While I do not think that competition will lower our rates, I have nothing against competition, as long as it is fair: fair to other competitors, fair to municipalities, and fair to consumers.

          1. TV reception
            It is not correct that only purchasers of new receivers will be able to receive TV signals. 70% of TV viewers subscribe to cable and will be able to receive analog signals as before, same with the 15% who subscribe to satellite.

            Only those 15% or so who receive signals over the air will be impacted. There will be tuners that will receive the digital over the air signals and convert them to signals that existing analog TVs can receive. A special subsidy is planned for people with lower incomes to purchase up to two converters.

            This is occuring because not only are signals going to be available in high definition, but in the spectrum normally occupied by one HD signal, up to 10 standard definition programs can be inserted, thus opening up enormous programming capacity.

            Another benefit is that portions of the television spectrum have been auctioned off or made available by the FCC for other uses, such as cell phones, security, etc.

            As with other areas of technology, advances have been made that allows much more information to be sent in the same bandwidth as the older analog TV technology.

            Aint all bad. Now all they have to do is get better programming.

          2. TV reception
            I thank Mr. Brugliera for his correction and information, though I still hold to the belief that the main impetus behind the digital mandate is to drive more dollars into that segment of the economy. Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Bruliera about the caliber of programming. Perhaps he would consider joining the Media Center and producing something. With his breadth of knowledge and his ability to articulate positions clearly and dispassionately, it seems he would do an outstanding job at producing or participating in the production of informational programming!(I feel compelled to add here that I have not paid Evanston Now for the space on their page to post this shameless plug of my organization.)

  2. Ugly distribution boxes on the public right of way?
    While it may seem like a small issue – 50-100 boxes on the already crowded public right of ways in this town is a big issue. The city is bearly providing adequate sidewalks for people in wheel chairs as it is.

    The city has a hard enough time in placing the traffic lights take a look how busy the corners are becoming with all the lights and controlers.

    I favor the competition but we don’t need a mess on the rightways in this town.

  3. digital TV
    I must admit that most innovation is inspired by the hope of monetary rewards. Cell phones were introduced to expand the reach of telephony and as a consequence the destructive impact of technology has resulted in diverse consequences. The conventional land line telephony market, especially long distance has suffered, yet millions of people who would never had had access to telephony in the third world (because of wired infrastructure) now have telephone service.

    The real battle for digital TV is to prevent the cable companies from requiring a set-top box for access to content. The FCC has required that TV receivers be able to decode encrypted cable TV signals through the use of a CableCard (as of March) that would plug into the TV set and not use a set-top box. Without this feature a TV set becomes a channel 3 monitor and loses its features. The cable companies want the set-top box for not only rental revenue, but to capture that first screen for transactional purposes.

    Digital TV has much more detail. It is awesome to see a projected digital TV image 30 meters across with its clarity and detail and all in the same bandwidth as analog TV. In addition spectrum space is being made available for fire, police and other services.

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