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AT&T Competition

And then there were two: AT&T brings competition

By John Howell Sr.

The City of Batesville has granted to AT&T the right to offer its U-Verse Internet Protocol-based television (IPTV) service to customers within the municipal limits – but not in return for the five percent franchise fee the mayor and aldermen wanted.

“Whatever our competitors offer, we offer the same,” AT&T’s Regional Manager of External Affairs Regulatory Gunter Goad told city officials during a recess meeting Wednesday morning, August 12.

After the mayor and aldermen had questioned the AT&T representative for about 45 minutes, they voted unanimously to sign an agreement authorizing the introduction of the service to the city.

The August 12 approval was followed by a statement from AT&T released yesterday announcing ???the launch of AT&T U-verse SM services in parts of Batesville, including AT&T U-verse TV, AT&T U-verse High Speed Internet and AT&T U-verse voice.”

Goad had pressed city officials to sign the agreement in return for a three percent franchise fee. City officials held out for five percent, which AT&T pays Oxford.

“For instance, in Oxford, Metrocast has offered five percent, so we match that,” Goad said, citing the franchise agreement in place with the cable television provider in the Lafayette seat when AT&T entered into its franchise agreement there.

“Here, the competitor’s offered three percent so we match that,” Goad continued. Cable One, which provides television, phone and Internet service, is the successor to the cable television provider that began service in Batesville over 40 years ago.

“Now, we’ve added language to the contract that says that if the competitor’s price goes up, whatever it is, we automatically go up to that same rate so that there’s no loss of revenue to the city,” Goad said.

“I just don’t see why one has to follow the other,” Alderman Eddie Nabors said.

“There’s a competitive disadvantage if we have to pay more than what the competitor is paying,” Goad replied, after explaining rate structures that typically pay cities from one to five percent in Mississippi in return for franchise rights.

“I know that there’s a question on when we’ll offer this service here,” the AT&T representative continued. “… For competitive reasons I really can’t tell you when we’re going to do it because that’s one of the things that our competitors would love to know, … as soon as possible,” Goad said.

“Could you say it would be within a year?” Alderman Stan Harrison asked.

“I can tell you that we’re moving fast,” Goad replied.

“We will begin rolling out the service on Monday, (August 17)” said AT&T spokesman Sue Sperry in a statement that followed Goad’s appearance at the Batesville meeting to secure the contract approval.

“Today’s launch of AT&T U-verse reflects our commitment to make the necessary investments to bring Mississippi consumers a new era of true video competition,” AT&T president Mayo Flint said in the August 17 press release.

“If we held the line at five percent would that give us negotiating advantage with Cable One?” asked Eddie Nabors. “I don’t want to give my ace in the hole away if we can boost Cable One.”

“I don’t think we can raise the rates in the middle of a contract,” said assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell.

The discussion continued with city officials seeking information about the existing contract, service and features of the new communications proposal.

Later in the meeting, city officials were told that the current contract with Cable One extends through July, 2010. The new contract with AT&T U-verse will not replace the Cable One contract. It will offer service from a second franchised provider.

Where does AT&T currently serve customers with U-verse?

There are currently over 1.5 million consumers, none in Mississippi but in other states, including Texas where the service was introduced about 18 months ago, Goad said.

Does AT&T have to run a separate line to a customer’s home to enable reception of U-verse service?

“No. It’s the same phone line,” Goad said. “It’s going to make a wireless network in your house, too.”

The company’s announcement said that all AT&T Internet services come with wireless at no additional cost.

How does U-verse’s Internet connection speed compare with cable?

“We offer speeds with this service up to … 14 megs; usually high-speed dsl is six megs,” Goad said. “More than double the speed.”

“So it’s better than DSL?” Nabors asked. “But compared to cable?”

“I can tell you what our speed is,” Goad replied, sidestepping direct comparison.

The AT&T statement said that the fastest downstream speeds reach 18 Mbps.

How do potential customers apply for AT&T U-verse service?

Go to attuverse.com, order from AT&T retail stores or phone AT&T, Goad said.

How much will it cost?

“The most popular AT&T U-verse TV offers start at $49 a month,” the August 17 announcement states. “Professional installation is included. … Additional promotion offers are available to qualifying customers who bundle U-verse Internet or Voice service.”

How will customer complaints be handled?

AT&T has a dedicated U-verse around-the-clock call center and web site and often same-day dispatch for service calls, Goad said.

“If you call … will you actually talk to somebody or will you get a series of tapes?” Alderman Bill Dugger asked.

“You can push the zero button …” Goad’s reply began.

“And you’ll get another tape?” Dugger interjected.

“And it’ll transfer you to a live person,” the telephone representative continued.

Would AT&T U-verse set up an office in Batesville to receive bill payments?

“I don’t really know the exact plans for here, but I know … you can pay bills at the wireless store.” (Thompson Wireless on Highway 6.)

Continuing discussion between Goad and the city officials revealed that customers would not be required to sign a contract with AT&T U-verse and that it would be able serve customers east of Interstate 55 which has been a barrier to the current cable service.