Friday, January 24, 2003
Carlisle: cable-ready and waiting
You've probably seen the white cable installation trucks navigating through the arctic streets of Concord. Will they roll into Carlisle next?
Yes, said AT&T Broadband spokesman Marc Goodman, who affirmed in the January 10 Mosquito that Carlisle would be upgraded to digital cable by April 13, bringing high-speed Internet access and other digital services to town. In an interview last week, Goodman said that the town will be notified 30 days before installation begins here but offered no specific date. Nonetheless, installation has obviously begun in various parts of town. He estimates that the upgrade will take "approximately eight weeks," but another company spokesman previously spoke of a three-week period. The exact date will be revealed in the thirty-day notification, which could arrive soon.
According to Goodman, new digital TV and high-speed data services will be available to subscribers as soon as the upgrade is completed. Thirty days before the April 13 completion date AT&T Broadband will send homeowners information about the new services and instructions on connecting to the digital system. "The individual homeowner will contact AT&T Broadband as soon as broadband Internet becomes available to schedule an installation appointment," Goodman explained. "The customer can choose to buy his or her own cable modem or lease one from the company."
Last December AT&T Broadband merged with Comcast and in a few months will adopt the Comcast name. The company promises that the new digital service will provide not only high-speed data access but also TV with better-quality picture and sound; over 200 channels of news, information and entertainment; more than 35 channels of Pay-Per-View; and a wide array of digital premium movie channels, including HBO, STARZ, Cinemax, Showtime, The Movie Channel, and Flix. Customers will need to buy a new digital set-top box available, of course, through AT&T Broadband.
What can subscribers expect to pay for upgraded services? AT&T Broadband customers were hit this month with an 8% rate hike, leading them to wonder what lies ahead when the new services are rolled out. Goodman said, "A majority of our customers subscribe to cable service as well as broadband Internet service, and pay $42.95 a month. If a customer chooses to lease a modem from AT&T Broadband, there is a $3 a month fee." The introductory level of digital cable, including 45 commercial-free, CD-quality channels, will cost $4.50 in addition to Carlisle's standard cable price of $38.41.
Analog customers, those who currently subscribe to standard cable, may choose to keep their existing level of service at no change in cost. They will have a more reliable service as a result of the upgrade, as well as an expanded channel line-up, typically three to six new channels on standard cable. Specifics on channel line-ups and further pricing details will be included in the April mailing to households.
The satellite solution
In a town-wide survey conducted in February 2000 by the Carlisle Cable Communications Advisory Committee during the license renewal process with AT&T Broadband, 84% of respondents expressed deep frustration over the absence of Internet access, while others complained about channel line-ups and customer service. After a series of broken promises to upgrade the cable system, first by Cablevision and then by AT&T Broadband, followed by Verizon's false assurances that DSL (direct subscriber line) would be available, many angry and frustrated Carlisleans sought alternatives. The Mosquito contacted three residents who opted out of cable TV and bought satellite systems for their home and business use. Would they return to cable now that the upgrade is within reach?
Tom Raftery of Concord Street plans to sign up again with AT&T Broadband. "The anticipated cost will be lower for the combination of TV and Internet access and the practical speed should also be faster," he says. Raftery adds that he has that setup at his other home and prefers it over the satellite system he uses in Carlislea DirecWay satellite and Earthlink for Internet access.
Ray Pichulo of McAllister Drive isn't sure if he will return to cable. "I am not using satellite for any data use, just Dish Network to watch TV," he explains, and he uses dial-up for Internet access. "I have two receivers and get about 160 channels for $44.95 a month." Pichulo objects to AT&T Broadband's pricing structure under which the customer has to take cable TV with Internet access, and he is content with his Dish Network. "Right now I plan to just wait and see what the offerings are."
"I will certainly not switch back to AT&T Broadband," reports Carl Popolo of Hartwell Road, "if only for the goodwill that AT&T squandered when the venture was under their control." He then lists 13 "reasons for never going back to anything ever related to cable," covering everything from inferior reception on the local channels to the company's program decisions that favor multiple home shopping channels. Just last month Popolo installed DirecTV for TV and has a link to Stefan Schueller's T1 network on Hartwell Road for Internet access. (Schueller last year installed a T1/802.11 system at his home and shares it with his neighbors, charging them a monthly fee in exchange for high speed and reliability).
Satellite versus cable modem
We asked Raftery, Pichulo and Popolo to compare the advantages and disadvantages of satellite data and cable modem. "There's no contest," says Pichulo. "Satellite loses. The cheapest satellite I know of is $59.95 a month, and that's after you've paid about $579 for equipment." (This is DirecWay, whose flyer recently went to most homes in Carlisle). Pichulo points out that satellite data is slower than cable modem and "the data rate is not guaranteed."
According to Raftery, "the only advantage of the satellite is its connection is more secure than cable. However, if a cable user is on a highly populated loop, the speed of the connection can be degraded." Carl Popolo agrees: "As soon as everyone in the neighborhood is on the same cable loop, there goes the promised bandwidth right down the tubesand I predict they [AT&T Broadband] will go to a metered usage system to mitigate bottlenecks during peak usage." Despite the cost, Popolo remains committed to satellite and would consider a two-way satellite solution for broadband if the Hartwell Road network didn't exist.
Charlie Davis of Judy Farm Road has used DirecWay for the Internet for over a month. "We already had DirecTV," he wrote to the online cityinthewoods group, "and we opted to go with the single-dish TV/Internet solution." On the plus side, Davis reports that DirecWay is much faster than dial-up and downloading large files is very quick, but interactivity, such as chat or online gaming, is difficult. In addition, says Davis, there are a number of "bugs and curiosities" in the service and software. "If the only alternative is dial-up, DirecWay is a winner . . . . If cable or DSL became available, I would probably opt for one of those over satellite. These technologies are more mature, less prone to bugs, and a wide array of products are available for sharing the Internet connection over a home network."
Other satellite owners report that weather can affect performance. Snow sticking to the dish can lead to outages, but a cover for the dish, or even a heater which is expensive, can minimize those problems. In the leafier Carlisle neighborhoods, trees can block reception to the dish. Satisfied satellite users, however, point out that cable outages are more frequent, last longer and are more annoying than satellite interruptions.
Once the town has been upgraded and residents have received their pricing and enhanced services information from AT&T Broadband, homeowners will be able to make their own comparisons, weighing the costs and services offered by cable and satellite.
DSL — in our future or not?
It is still possible that DSL service will someday be a competitor in Carlisle. As residents waited impatiently for years for an answer to its high-speed data needs, the potential of DSL service kept coming up. While AT&T Broadband and its predecessor Cablevision enraged subscribers with their deplorable customer service, poor quality TV and broken promises, Verizon stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the cable company in creating ill will. Members of Carlisle's high-tech community have tried repeatedly to learn when Verizon would activate its DSL equipment in the telephone switching office in the town center (the small red building below Town Hall). Some impatient customers, attracted by incessant ads in the media for DSL service in Massachusetts, signed up with Verizon, only to have bewildered technicians arrive at their doorstep to find that service to the home was unavailable. Verizon claims that a flawed database for Carlisle was responsible for delays in implementing DSL. This experience has led to widespread disenchantment with the phone company and dark promises by some residents never to sign up with Verizon.
The Mosquito contacted a Verizon spokesperson last week for a DSL update in light of the impending broadband upgrade. Asked to comment on AT&T Broadband's April 13 completion date, Verizon's Briana Gowing said only, "Our calendar doesn't go that far out." Pressed further, she said that DSL in Carlisle was not scheduled in "the near future" and that residents would receive a press release when the time came.
If and when DSL comes to town, it will offer some competition to AT&T Broadband, which would have a positive influence on pricing. Also, in the future look for AT&T Broadband, soon to be known only as Comcast, to offer telephone service bundled with cable TV and Internet access, which should result in some savings for the consumer. But don't hold your breath. According to a company spokesman, "Typically it takes about two or three years before we launch telephone service due to additional engineering work that needs to be done to the system."
Carlisle's long wait does have one benefitsince the town was never upgraded, e-mail users here will avoid the upcoming hassle of having to change their address again. It was reported last week that Comcast will force more than 200,000 New England cable Internet modem subscribers to get their third e-mail address in barely a year. They will have moved from mediaone, to attbi, and soon to comcast, and they are not happy about the inconvenience.
So Carlisle waits, but now it is months, not years. Meanwhile, residents with questions about cable TV can write to the Carlisle Cable Communications Advisory Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito