AT&T’S U-verse: Another TV service starting up

A new competitor enters the Columbia television market today when AT&T rolls out U-verse.

U-verse and its 350 channels will try to lure television watchers away from Time Warner Cable and the satellite companies with different features, including one that allows people to record up to four programs at once.

But consumers shouldn’t expect the new competitor to deliver a lower-priced option, and it may not be available in every neighborhood.

Columbia is the first city in South Carolina to get U-verse. In North Carolina, Charlotte and Raleigh have it.

AT&T will make a strong push to sell the service to people who already use its land line and cellular phone services and Internet service.

“The goal is to be able to look at whatever content you want, wherever you want and with whatever device you have,” said Bob Sellman, general manager of AT&T Southeast in Charlotte. “We call it three-screen technology, with one being your TV, two being your laptop or home computer and three being your cell phone.”

AT&T uses Internet technology to provide the service.

“It’s just using the same technology to transmit video,” said Vince Vittore, an analyst for Yankee Group, a technology research and consulting firm.

In each U-verse home, customers will have one box that is the gateway to the service. Then, customers could have one DVR box and additional, smaller set-top boxes for each television connected to U-verse.

While U-verse brings another choice for television viewers in Columbia, its customers can expect to pay similar prices as they would for cable or satellite, Vittore said.

“If you’re waiting for a price war, you’re going to be waiting forever,” he said.

U-verse packages start at $44 a month for 120 channels. A basic bundle for television, high-speed Internet and home phone begins at $90.

Those prices are comparable to Time Warner’s offerings in the Columbia area.

The different companies will offer various price points for their products, especially when customers sign contracts for more than one service. Vittore described it as “murky marketing.”

“The difference is splitting hairs,” he said.

The companies also will push their exclusive features that others do not offer.

For U-verse, that will be its “Total Home DVR,” with which customers can watch recorded programs on any connected television in the house.

Cable customers can watch recorded programs only from the television attached to the DVR box.

U-verse also allows customers to record up to four programs at a time, while most cable customers are limited to recording two.

Finally, customers who have AT&T Internet and phone service can program their DVR even if they are not at home, Sellman said.

“If you forgot to record a South Carolina basketball game and you’re not going to get home until the second half, you can set it up to record remotely,” he said.

But Time Warner has its unique features, including “start over” and “look back,” which allow viewers to catch programs that already have aired.

All television providers pitch their high-definition offerings. U-verse has up to 85 channels, while Time Warner offers 51.

South Carolina opened the market to U-verse in 2006 when the General Assembly passed the Competitive Cable Services Act, which allowed the state to control television franchising.

U-verse will not be available immediately in every Columbia neighborhood, and Sellman would not say which areas would have access.

Some critics have said AT&T would offer U-verse in wealthier neighborhoods, giving it a competitive advantage over traditional cable companies whose franchising agreements require them to offer the product throughout an entire city.

AT&T will not introduce U-verse citywide because the company wants to make sure its rollout has the proper technical support and infrastructure, Sellman said.

“It is in our best interest to provide it as widely as we can,” he said.

Meanwhile, Time Warner Cable would not elaborate on its marketing plan to go to battle with its newest competitor.

“Competition is nothing new to us,” said Melissa Buscher, Time Warner’s spokeswoman. “AT&T’s U-verse is just another player in a large field.

“We’re going to take the competition head-on.”

Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.