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.

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