Independent Video Producers on San Antonio Public Access TV

Friday, May 11, 2007

What Makes AT&T's U-Verse Tick?

This is a recent article by Jennifer Harris, of the Center for Digital Democracy. It mentions an issue of concern in San Antonio.

The Universe According to AT&T’s U-verse

By: Jennifer Harris

AT&T's leap into the converged world is illustrated in its two-pronged IPTV approach, Homezone and U-verse. IPTV is a system that enables digital television sets to be programmed using the more personalized data delivery method of the Internet – Internet Protocol.

U-verse, as explained by Joe Laszlo of JupiterKagan Research, is considered "the end-game" for AT&T. U-verse is similar to a cable-like video service offered by way of phone lines and to only those privileged enough to have fiber in their neighborhoods. Homezone, a hybrid satellite/IPTV service offered in conjunction with Dish Network, is a second-tier option offered to customers who don't want to wait (or may never see) fiber optic appear in their city. The cities able to yield the highest return on investment for the pricey deployment of fiber cables will get services first, while other communities remain on the back-burner. AT&T’s model of preferential treatment extends throughout the formation of their IPTV service, stepping up quality for those with deep pockets and standing aside for those without. By building a new media system that perpetuates the anti-competitive communications market and neglects the public interest, AT&T delivers a service to customers that falls short of its connective and innovative potential.

Traditional media is inevitably shifting from being a source primarily for entertainment to becoming a networked system that connects households inextricably to their educational, civic, health and buying needs. New media services will no longer be classified as stand-alone luxuries, because convergence is melding voice, video and data into singular systems essential for information sharing and communications. IPTV, and other new media services, will become staples in American households (much like electricity or telephone service) and become necessities in the information age. As AT&T sets the stage for an IPTV service that plays favorites between the haves and have-nots, it is setting in motion a system that restricts information, and allocates it only to the wealthy and the well-connected. The fiber lines being laid are dividing more than just parts of a city; AT&T is creating a lopsided playing field that will ultimately leave citizens and communities out of countless opportunities for advancement and connectivity.

When AT&T refused to disclose their build-out plans in the Geneva, IL tri-state area, it soon became clear to city officials that the reason was because AT&T had no intentions of offering U-verse and other advanced broadband services to the entire community. Geneva’s IT manager said “they're asking us to specifically segregate and point to one part of our community and say, ‘…in order to let AT&T come in here, we're going to serve the east side of town but not the west.’”

Unwilling to negotiate under local franchising authority and abide by the rules set for cable providers, AT&T eventually took the city of Geneva to court (many other cities have also been dragged into similar legal battles: Milwaukee, WI, Walnut Creek & Livermore, CA, Naperville, IL and multiple Chicago suburbs). Ralph Ballart, former vice president of broadband at SBC Laboratories commented that "If we are going to build the IP (Internet Protocol) pipe, we want all the revenue streams." However, AT&T cannot guarantee that all parts of a community that allow the company to build the IP pipe will ultimately receive AT&T’s IP services. When AT&T officials are questioned specifically about obligations to build out services, they claim that U-verse cannot be classified as either a cable or telecommunications service; therefore previous rules do not apply.

If U-verse is neither accountable for previous obligations nor responsible in adhering to principles guiding future innovation, then how can customers expect to benefit from services that don’t have to truly serve them? AT&T, as a stipulation to their $86 billion merger with BellSouth, agreed to abide by a set of net neutrality principles, or guidelines that the company will not favor one set of online content above others. However the guidelines distinctly exclude AT&T’s “end game”, U-verse. If U-verse is truly where the buck stops then as David Isenberg recognizes “we have provided AT&T/[BellSouth] the means to render the proposed Network Neutrality condition on the merger violable, and…so weak as to be meaningless”. By discriminating against certain types of content, U-verse will be able to set the hierarchy – dictating which content is most valuable for you and your family.

Pay for Digital Play

AT&T is not only seeking to control broadband on the user end, but to parcel it out to preferred content providers as well. AT&T is taking harmful steps to ensure that non-commercial television has no future on IPTV sets. Consumers should not expect to see community-focused, noncommercial programming in the world of U-verse…at least not clearly.

A suspicious request made in an agreement between AT&T and San Antonio asked that PEG access centers send all programming to the provider at rates that would clearly degrade the content; ultimately making the community channels unwatchable to all viewers. Alliance for Community Media Executive Director, Anthony Riddle believes that by juxtaposing the pixilated community media channels with the crisp HD images of the other cable channels that “AT&T is pushing to ghettoize PEG channels on U-verse”.

As AT&T has shifted into the new media environment, they have made it very clear that they want to leave the public’s interests out of the big IPTV picture. AT&T is rolling out a service that is perpetually cutting corners – exploiting converging technologies and dodging local oversight. AT&T is taking measured and calculated steps that trim the edges off of previous obligations to serve communities.

The infrastructure for a powerful, interactive communications system deserves to be built on a model that will give back to communities exponentially. A U-verse system that is responsive to the public interest would open windows in communities: enhancing distance learning programs in disadvantaged school systems, generating economic potential in rural and urban areas by offering career advancement in IT and media fields, and by connecting families to valuable health and medical care not offered locally. However, U-verse amounts to a universe of untapped possibility. AT&T could construct a U-verse environment that works toward a long-term vision instead of being based around fleeting profits, but in AT&T’s U-verse - advertisers mean the world.

No comments: