Billing Blues

Automatic payments had been set up in November.

AT&T's automatic billing for December did not happen. Now the bill is back to $70 (two month's rent), to be billed January 12.


1-800-ATT-2020. Voice response: "Enter the ten-digit number on your account"; "U-verse"; "Billing"; "Payments" ... For some reason the call routes to Chris in residential service. Chris reroutes to U-verse. "All our customer service representatives are helping other customers. Please stay on the line." Music and announcements play for 23 minutes, then the line goes dead.

1-800-ATT-2020. Ten-digit phone number. "U-verse". "Billing". Route to operator Sam. He checks the account; automatic billing is enabled.

Sam comments that it takes four to six weeks for automated billing to kick in once it's set up. Apparently, automatic billing was set up too late to make the December billing cycle.

Wow. AT&T is in no hurry to get paid.

Just wait until January; the whole charge for November and December will be billed then. "You can pay it yourself at any time."

Super. Let's let it ride and see what happens mid-January.

Sam makes an upsell to unlimited long distance for the house's back-up landline.

No thanks, Sam. Cells phones are for long distance.

Did I provide you with excellent service today?

Thanks Sam, you did. Happy New Year.

Happy New Year, sir.



My friend C-, who lives across town, noticed the AT&T U-versites proselytizing his neighborhood. They never came to his door, however.

How come? C- finally stopped one of them and asked.

Your house is not on our list.


We can't get service to you.

But you talk to both houses on either side of me, and the ones across the street.

We'll look into it.

Now, C- holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science, a few patents, and actually Knows Stuff. Maybe AT&T is getting wise that the technically-minded are a pain.

They'll look into it.


Agh! Salesman!

Not having a list of customers and not training sales folk is silly.

Another pair of nice fellows came by today, wanting to know whether I'd heard that AT&T had installed fiber optic TV.

Uh, yeah guys. And, no guys, it ain't FiOS, it's fiber to the box. And I'd tried the TV and ditched it. But the Internet is good. Thanks.

They got a printed copy of this blog's home page.


Billing - My Bad

Oops. Didn't have automatic billing set up -- thought I did. I ignored the Oct billing, and now the bill says $70, $35 past due.

Okay, have $35. It's a good service.

The payment system doesn't update the billing system, however. After 3 days, the bill still says I owe $70 (Oct + Nov), but the payment system thinks I owe $35 (Nov only). "Your account will be charged $70 on December 12." Huh?

1-800-ATT-2020. U-verse billing phone tree, get a person. "Your bill will be updated. Don't worry."

Okay, sure.

Automatic billing now enabled. What could go wrong?


Now Even More!

Just arrived in today's mail, the "Late Summer 2008" offer from AT&T:

up to $200 cash back! Hurry offers end September 20. DETAILS INSIDE!

The previous brochure, "Summer 2008":

up to $150 cash back! see details inside.

Should've waited.

AT&T really wants into the television business.


1-800-ATT-2020. Voice menu. Service requests. Denise. Confirm PIN on account. How may I help you?

Please cancel this account's U-verse TV service.

Okay sir. Let me route you to our Retention department.

Ed picks up. He's in the San Fernando Valley, 20 minutes from here. Another excellent customer service hire; his voice smiles over the phone.

Please cancel the TV service. We like the 'Net, but we're just not watching the television.

May I ask why, sir?

TiVo wins; it's easier and faster to use. Free HDTV on the channels that matter for college football is enough, and U-verse charges extra for HD even on the bare-bones package. We really haven't watched the U-400 stuff much in the last two weeks.

Ed asks minor technical and accounting questions. AT&T will turn off the service tomorrow. Please just pay the broadband Internet portion of the bill. AT&T will send a postage-paid coffin for the DVR, please wait 10 days for it, then return the U-verse receiver in it.

Re-enabling the service is a simple call to a friendly AT&T rep. A service tech would need to install a new U-verse DVR.

Makes sense, Ed. Thanks.

Thank you sir.

Everyone has a great day.

Time to Pay the Piper

First U-verse bill:

U-400 TV8/15/08-9/14/08$99.00
Broadband Elite8/15/08-9/14/08 $35.00
Credit for August free TV8/15/08-8/31/08-$44.23
Taxes and Surcharges

What? Y- had said he would apply a $50 representative's coupon against the bill because he mistakenly sold the service -- including Internet -- as free for one month.

1-800-ATT-2020. Oops, Skype dialed from a 202 area code and confused AT&T. Sorry, that was rude.

Home line. 1-800-ATT-2020. Voice menu. Billing. Shawn, badge #ST2021. Another nice fellow, this time located in Oakland. Account # and PIN. How can I help you?

Shawn just works in Billing. There's no note on the record or any indication that Y-, agent #CYDLASV359, had applied a $50 representative's credit as stated 29 July. Shawn has no way to route a call to sales, either.

Okay then.

Shawn says the unbundled price for Internet service is still $35. There's no way to cancel U-verse TV from the web interface, call to request it. Billing for mobile phone service can be bundled on the same bill as Internet, but the 20% discount applies only to bundled television/mobile service.

Good enough.



A Penguin on the Telly

Is the U-verse television slate compelling? U-400 pipes in 417 channels:

  • 47 are radio stations

  • 242 unique channels after excluding duplicates, eg, TMC, TMC - West

  • 58 duplicates are HD versions

  • 20 duplicates are non-English carrying the same programming

  • 6 are AT&T promotional channels

  • Many channels are empty, eg, 21 regional ESPN are blank unless a game is playing

With a DVR, the need for "Channel" and a duplicate "Channel - Timezone" seems unnecessary, especially for channels that hold pre-recorded programming. Watch 'em when they show up in the list.

Video on Demand (channel 9999) has selections for recent movies at $4 per rental. Adult hardcore entertainment is available at $7-12 per rental (people still rent pr0n?); about 12 channels have softcore "after dark" programming. Approximately 2/3s of VoD programming is re-plays of CineMax, HBO, SHO, and other pay channel programs that are not in the current air schedule. "Hundreds" of movies are available.

The competition: the Internet and Netflix Watch Now! service. "Top Gear" is on BBC America, but is also seen at www.surfthechannel.com and in the Torrent; the Stig's white uniform looks sharper on TV, but the program is entirely watchable online. Netflix Watch Now! has 10,000 films (many awful, but no charge) and more online daily. Coupled with a rental rate of about $2 per movie ($16/month, watch 8 DVDs/month) for the huge DVD-by-mail catalog.

The one compelling reason is live sports. Regional college and pro games make it tempting to the sports fan, but even with picture in picture and channel swapping, how much can you realistically watch in a weekend as you hunker down in your man-cave? (Correct answer: all.)


The Ups and Downs

G.D. tried U-verse a year ago. He kept the Internet service but dropped the TV.

During the last month, he's had trouble keeping the link alive. After going round and round with AT&T, they're finally repairing the service.

Probable failure cause: corroded bridge tap between his house and the street. Solution: dig up the line to the street. The work supposedly started today.

G.D. lives in a neighborhood built some decades ago, so it's understandable that the copper infrastructure has aged. Regardless, it took some wrangling to get someone out to look at it. The failure is intermittent and data traffic is bursty, so the view from the central office generally showed the line as okay. Good thing G.D. is persistent enough to track it down to a resolution.

Update 2008-08-20

From: G.D.
Sent: Wed 8/20/2008 7:16 PM
Subject: gmail slow?

Is anyone else having problems with gmail being slow or is my internet connection still flaky?



Box of Whine

Petty annoyances:

When the DVR has been running longer than an hour, the disk drive bearings start to sing. It's a high-pitched sound, up in the range where it's difficult to locate the source. If the service stays, we need a quieter DVR. To be sure, C-- the installation guy had warned of disk noise.

Turning on the television with the TV's remote starts the U-verse box and automatically flips the TV's input to HDMI, which then takes a second to synch up with the U-verse DVR. This "feature" is desirable if you watch only U-verse programming, but it's annoying when I want to see the 2008 Olympics on NBC.HD, as freely provided by TWC. There's probably a setting on the TV to keep it from autoseeking a new source.

TiVo's skip-ahead / jump back function is really, really nice. When fast-forwarding the U-verse box, it's nearly impossible to hit the end of a break accurately. U-verse has a jump forward 30 seconds button, but it's not the same. Note to AT&T: just pay TiVo the royalty.

Once in View Recorded TV mode, jumping back to Live TV takes two steps. Select the Guide which puts you into the channel guide mode (recorded TV appears on channel 9999). Enter the channel number or scroll up through the 400-odd channels to find the live program. Hit OK. Now it's possible to jump back and forth between the recorded channel and the live channel.


FTP Speed Test Lite

First FTP speed test. Single trial of network speed during evening hours (21:30-22:00) when the cable modem is loaded with traffic from the neighbors. The AT&T gateway is unloaded.
  • Upload 6,098,903 byte WMV file, download 97,704,430 zipped collection of MP3s.
  • Transfer program: native MS Windows FTP from command line.
  • Connections are wired (100 Mb/s) Ethernet.
  • Source host is Windows Vista Ultimate x64.
  • Target host is UNIX.
  • Distance to host via AT&T: average 47 msec.
  • Distance to host via TWC: average 25 msec.
  • Number of test runs: 1 upload and download for each network.
  • Test time: 21:30-22:00 PT, during prime time television broadcast.

NetworkTime UpRate UpTime DownRate Down

Not a bad first look. AT&T is twice as fast uploading, and 30% faster downloading.


Distribution Points

Below are pictures comparing the distribution nodes in the neighborhood.

This unit is TWC/Roadrunner's. The little window on the top front looks into the electric meter. The low, green box in the background is the cable wiring junction.

The AT&T installation. The foreground unit is the U-verse node, the background cabinet is the existing telephone wiring distribution point.

From the other side, showing the electric meter.


Replies to Readers

Have you tried component video? HDMI often has handshake issues and needs to be started in a specific order to work.

Only the HDMI port on the TV was free. Besides, HDMI is the wave of the future, right? And it's a consumer product, so the system is just supposed to work.

FYI, the U-verse DVR has two composite (yellow, red, white), one component (YPrPb), one S-video, one optical, and one RF (coax) output.

More concerning than the HDMI handshake is the digital rights management and copy restrictions Hollywood has forced into the protocol.

So this is an ATT package with phone, internet, and TV together?
How do they pass the bandwidth for the TV over copper? Or do they have some fiber at the street? Or am I out to lunch?!

Just curious. I'm always looking for ways I can make any provider (in this case TWC) not a monopoly.

- T.L.
Yes. The Residential Gateway supports television, Internet, and two Voice over IP phones.

The TV is Internet Protocol Television (IPTV). The DVR talks with the distribution node over an aDSL link and switches the programs there. This design engineers around the limits of solid copper lines and removes the need to pull optical fiber to the home (FTTH).

See the FAQ at UverseUsers.com.

So, are you still using Time Warner internet connection?

Yes. The month long trial is a test. A CATV line holds a lot of bandwidth, even more when digitized and compressed. Under TWC/Roadrunner, the TV and Internet services have separate networks on premises. The U-verse DVR and Internet service run over a single Ethernet network; let's see how well Internet and TV traffic play together. Then, if it works well, plays nice, and competes on cost, it stays.

I wonder how AT&T feels about the blog? If more people rubbed their noses in how it really works, they'd have to get it working better.

A friend of mine has Verizon FIOS in Ontario. It's really fast, non-compressed high definition video and it's really integrated with fiber.

What AT&T feels is immaterial; how well U-verse works isn't.

Verizon's FiOS costs a fortune to pull FTTH, and AT&T is working around the technical constraints of their existing copper infrastructure. For Verizon's $10BB outlay, AT&T can emplace a lot of distribution nodes on their network. Hopefully, their exploding box problem (hat tip to M.G. for the link) has been licked; the node in this neighborhood is large and would make a loud bang.



Call the U-verse service line to cancel the service call.

Voice menu. U-verse service selected. The call routes. The same, vaguely south-Asian voice comes on to repeat the same message as Sunday: Attention U-verse customers we are experiencing higher than normal service requests ...

Dreary hold music, 1 minute at most.

Hello this is Jim. How can I (pause) how can I provide you with excellent service tonight?

Jim confesses to being a "newbie". Nice guy. Clearly working from somewhere in the U S of A.

Regarding service request for U-verse, opened with "Kristal", operator #KW308G midday Sunday August 3, please cancel the call. The problem is fixed.

Wow, you really have your information down.

Jim needs his supervisor's help as he's never canceled a service request before. He'll be back in two minutes.

Take your time, Jim.

Smooth, jazzy, upbeat hold music. How much do hold tunes cost to engineer? Does iTunes sell hold music? Does anyone podcast hold music? Would an iPod of hold music ever turn up on eBay?

Four minutes later, Jim returns. The service call is canceled, and he explains the cancellation went to the local service group who will pick it up in the morning. Apparently the good news is left by voice message.

Did you feel the earthquake last week? What was it like?

No problem Jim. Just a small one just east of here.

So you're ready for the big one when California cracks and half falls into the ocean, you'll swim.

Yup. Do you want any information about why the call was canceled?

No (evidently AT&T U-verse never tracks why service calls are abandoned).

Okay thank you and have a great evening.



So, if the problem looks like a screen format mismatch, there's nothing to lose by fiddling with the settings. More, when the TV boots up, a fragment of picture flashes briefly before the BSOD appears. And it's not a true BSOD; it looks like an overscan problem.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Menu > Options > System Settings > Aspect Ratio. Choose 1080i. The DVR asks to test. Sure. Tests okay. Keep Settings? Sure.

Punch the remote's ON/OFF button. Both TV and DVR shut down (noting that, unlike TiVO, the AT&T DVR stops its disk spindle). Wait a minute to ensure everything's really, really off.

Punch ON/OFF again. TV and DVR wake up. The picture flashes on the TV, then the screen goes black with a brief message 1080i. One second. The picture returns with HDMI 1080i in the upper right corner.

Joy. It works fine.

Now to call AT&T and tell
Kristal #KW308G that the service call is no longer needed.


After D-- left, the TV was turned off. At 8pm, it was turned on.

The U-verse DVR displays the Blue Screen of Death.

Looks like a mismatch between screen sizes. What about the other inputs? Nope, they're fine.

Okay, reboot.

Fantastic. Let's turn off/on the TV to see what happens:

Starting the TV (it needs to boot, too) on the HDMI feed from the U-verse DVR flashes "Invalid Format", then "1080i", then goes to the BSOD:

Let's try other channels.

Okay, time to make notes.

The problem occurs every time the TV is turned off and back on that evening. It happens Sunday morning, 3 August. Time to call 800-288-2020.

Service and support says to restart the RG. Why? Because the DVR is dependent on the RG (dependent for what? D-- also said this). RG reboots. TV off, then on.


The service tech will come Tuesday, 5 August, between 10am and 12pm.


The Test Config, 3 August

Device Setup

While D-- completes the wiring and works with C-- to improve signal strength, we place the U-verse DVR and plug it in.

Oops. D-- says installation procedure is to power the DVR after the Residential Gateway is up and running. The DVRs need to download updates on first boot. Because they have a lot of updates, new installs can download-and-patch cycle for 30 minutes or more.

We unplug the box. D-- thinks it will be okay.

AT&T's Residental Gateway is a 2Wire Corp. 3800HGV-B. It too requires a boot-download-patch cycle. The process hangs; D-- calls and is told again the central servers are slow and the update may take time.
He sets the time zone, line type (RJ-11), and broadband type (DSL).

Once the RG is up and running, there are more passwords to set. The U-verse account must be activated through the RG. U-verse accounts are distinct from other AT&T accounts, so it's create Yet Another Login and Password. Account creation interface at att.net gonks after completing, so we do it twice to ensure it takes.

The RG has a nice web interface. The unit answers on; adding mdc to the URL opens the simplified management and diagnostic console (the admin password is printed on its side). D-- sets the time zone, line type (RJ-11), and broadband type (DSL) again and power-on resets the unit once more to get it to update. It's back online in about 10 minutes, and any signal strength problems seem fixed.

Next, the DVR. Power-on, download-and-patch (20 minutes). Wedge. Hold down the power reset key, restart. BSOD. Power reset key, restart. TV appears. The screen resolution is iffy. The Westinghouse LTV32-W6 can show 720p and 1080i, but the package has no HD service. D-- sets the remote to recognize the TV, sets the DVR to send 1080, and stuff appears. Joy.

D-- gives a tour of the U-verse interface: Guide, recording options, video on demand, pay channels, controls. None of the HD channels work, but since the TV/DVR resolution is ok, upgrading is a good idea. D-- says the box holds 120 hrs of recordings but it gets hinkey when the disk is >85% full. He shows how to find the disk space monitor: Options > System Settings > System Information. D-- is a peach.

We are good to go. D-- leaves around 6pm. Elapsed time, five hours.

Wiring, August 2

D-- from AT&T shows up at 1pm to install. He reviews The Plan and building equipment layout. The TV is in one room, the network drop in the adjacent office. There are no phone jacks or drops by the TV. Agreed: put the U-verse Residential Gateway in office, pull CAT 5 from the office to the TV room through existing cable race, connect U-verse set-top box to TV via HDMI.

D-- leaves to set up the connection at the equipment hub; he will return in about an hour. Meanwhile, install the CAT 5 cable and clear space in the TV cabinet; the cable is pulled, terminated, and tested before he returns.

Problem: the U-verse signal is weak as it is far from the distribution point (the maximum is about 920m). Worse, the existing premise phone wiring is a mess. D-- asserts electricians wired the phones because the CAT-3 lines have been cut at every box. Tracing the warble is time consuming and he cannot find the signal on the pairs where he put it.

Agreed: pull a line directly from the point of entry to the office drop:

Even with the office wiring installed, the signal at the drop is still weak. D-- calls C--, who is about 20 minutes away. C-- arrives, tests the line, and confirms there's no intervening break or bridge. The two make a call to the central office to turn up the volume, which takes another 30 minutes because the network control system is offline. Finally, the signal strength, though at the margin of poor operation (-12dB and 75% of normal) is deemed good enough.

Premise wiring finishes at ~4pm.


The Plan, 30 July

No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy. -- Helmuth Graf von Moltke


N-- and Y--, July 29

3pm, AT&T U-verse knocks. Two people, the young lady from last week and a young man. He is clearly her supervisor.

Y-- introduces himself and N--.

Sir, I'd like to ask you a little more about why you don't want U-verse. When N-- talked to you, all she wrote down was "cost".

Y-- listens to the explanation.

Thank you sir. Y-- turns to N--. You see, he's really interested in the Internet. You just wrote down "cost" but the cost of what is important. Y-- describes the detail that should have been in her report.

N-- looks uncomfortable. It's tough when you're young and in a sales, and N-- seems shy, too. Not a good job fit.

More discussion. Y-- offers a month service trial, no cost. The right package is U200 w/Elite Internet. Consolidating cellphone bills gains a 20% discount but is applicable only after the first month. Long discussion about features and service.

She Who Must Be Worshiped With Chocolate asks whether U-verse has BBC America.


Okay, try it. Order the full package of U400/Elite (upsell all the swell channels -- $134/mo), then back off to U200/Elite ($94/mo) if the service stays after the trial period. The total package long-term monthly cost is less than TWC/Roadrunner but just barely.

Due to regulatory controls and the complexity of the offering, it takes a while to complete paperwork, verify the order, make a hand-off call to AT&T, schedule installation. N-- is learning a lot, much of it basic, such as repeating aloud order numbers over the phone to ensure correctness and printing clearly in blue ink.

Y-- is learning too. The first month of U400 TV is no-cost, but the Elite Internet service is $35. Y-- apologizes, and adds a $50 supervisor's coupon to cover it.

5:30pm, they leave. Installation is Saturday, August 2.

AT&T really wants into the TV business.

Backtrack: the Week of 20 July

Continued petty problems with TWC/Roadrunner. Services have been sketchy for three weeks.
  • DNS is flakey. Usual symptoms: slow web loads; unexpected starts and stops when loading pages; hangs and timeouts before connecting. nslookup shows response times in excess of 5-10 seconds.
  • Is Roadrunner throttling automatically? A large FTP transfer ran fine, then the byte rate suddenly dropped to 10-12 KB/s. It seems to recur: large transfers start well, then drop off. More than one target site has this problem.
  • Netflix "Watch Instantly" shifts to low-res mode even when playing mornings and mid-day.
Several calls, lasting 30 minutes to an hour, come up empty. Everything is working on RR's end.

Hard-configuring RR DNS with a third open DNS service helps. But bit rates, once in the 5-6Mbps range, are now hover the 2-3Mbps range; upstream is worse. A good day sees 4Mbps downstream, 400Kbps up.

N--, Week of July 20

The week of July 20, a young lady from AT&T U-verse knocked.

I'm sorry, I'm uninterested in U-verse, as I've said to the other sales callers. But thank you.

Oh no, sir. We know that. But would you mind telling us why?

It's more expensive than TWC/Roadrunner.
It costs more than what I have now for the same thing. The price must come down or the service go up for the new price. I've given more detail and a longer explanation before and have it written down. Would you like a copy?

That's okay sir. She wrote something. Okay, thank you sir.

You're welcome. Have a nice evening.

AT&T U-verse and U

AT&T's U-verse service became available February 2008.

Astonishingly, the famously standoffish company sent three different door-to-door sales people to the neighborhood within this first month. The first fellow showed up the day the service was ready.

AT&T has motivated every employee with commissions. Every contact for whatever reason with AT&T during the last six months has included a plug for U-verse. A newly installed phone line has rung weekly with U-verse cold calls, and U-verse pitches have cluttered billing statements, customer email, and paper mail.

Evidently, AT&T wants into the TV business.

The numbers said "no", however. The cheaper Time-Warner Roadrunner Internet service tops out at 6 Mbps downstream, 768 Kbps upstream with averages of 4.5Mbps/430Kbps during load times. This is the basic service. More, TWC television signals feed directly into TiVo (Series 2 with lifetime subscription carried over from a Series 1) and a Westinghouse 1080i flat-panel television, no extra boxes required. HDTV is available in real-time (no HD on TiVO), and the only real-time HD programming need is college football.

The comparable U-verse U200 Elite package (6/1Mbps, basic television) costs more. HD service is an additional charge, but offers more HD channels. And TiVo has been really, really good; switching DVRs loses the lifetime subscription, worth $12.95 per month.

So thanks, but no, thank you.