Telco television changes channels of distribution

Telecommunications giant AT&T is reported to be spending $4.6 billion to provide television over broadband in up to 20 American markets by the end of 2006, reaching up to 19 million homes in over 40 markets by the end of 2008. Can it compete with cable and satellite or does it offer more of the same?

The company seems to be sticking to these plans, despite scepticism from some analysts that it will reach these targets in this timescale.

AT&T began a trial of its service in its home region of San Antonio in Texas last December, and is finally making at available to test users.

Technology blogger Alan Weinkrantz, who runs a public relations firm in San Antonio, has been posting his experiences of disconnecting his cable company to use the service.

He seems happy enough, and largely uncritical, although his new internet protocol television service does not currently include high-definition channels. He even issued a press release inviting AT&T chairman Ed Whitacre to come over to his house and hand out and watch IPTV over the Memorial Day holiday weekend.

The AT&T IPTV service, originally initiated by SBC as part of its Project Lightspeed, is reportedly due to launch next in Houston, Texas, followed by markets across the regions served by the company in the West, Southwest, Midwest and East Coast of America.

AT&T previously merged with SBC Communications to become the largest telecommunications company in the country and has since announced an agreement to merge with BellSouth.

Verizon is also rolling out its FiOS service with an ambitious fibre-optic network, although it is currently eschewing true IPTV and using technology that is closer to cable television.

There have been suggestions that AT&T may even follow Verizon in extending its fibre network closer to the home.

Both operators are using software from Microsoft, which has also been adopted by several leading European telecommunications companies.

Following a previous pact between Microsoft and Alcatel, the two companies have now announced a partnership with HP, further establishing their strength in the market.

The first impressions from users seem to be that the system is very intuitive. “It was clean, simple and fast to navigate,” commented Weinkrantz on his web site. “The quick changing channels is also a common theme of what people comment on when they come over to see it.”

It is ironic that the speed of channel surfing is one of the much vaunted features of the Microsoft system. It is hardly a tribute to television as a compelling and immersive media experience, and hardly a selling point to television networks or their advertisers.

In the past there may have been 57 channels and nothing on, but IPTV can potentially offer unlimited channels. As Jeff Weber of AT&T points out, changing channels is just like changing URLs on the web. Time will tell whether these will point to a vast wasteland or a world-wide wonderland of possibilities