HDTV over IP by AT&T

Okay, this headline speaks volumes about the biggest problem with the whole field of HDTV: all those acronyms. Here’s another one that describes why it’s a problem: MEGO. (That stands for My Eyes Glaze Over.) But this alphabet soup is news of interest. AT&T has been testing its Internet-based television system called U-Verse, and has just started offering up to 30 HDTV channels to subscribing households in its San Antonio test market.

This is significant, because AT&T is relying on old-fashioned copper wire to deliver the data to the subscriber’s homes. Unlike Verizon which has set out to cover the world with fiber optic to your door (well, at least large parts of the U.S.), AT&T is trying to use the existing infrastructure to carry the data and to rely on DSL technology for the high bandwidth. Even so, subscribers are limited to one HDTV channel at a time per household. Early reports are that the image quality is good, but until we get someone like Peter Putman to visit San Antonio to take some measurements, we won’t know how much AT&T is compressing the signal.

While I find the AT&T approach to be a clever idea, I’m not sure that it will win. It’s relatively easy to implement right away, which may buy AT&T some mindshare that can be converted to other types of subscriptions as the company builds out other options. For example, it would be fairly easy to convert customers to a WiMax wireless broadband service down the road, and this could cost much less than Verizon’s expensive fiber optic build out. Still, the current approach has some significant limitations, and competing options from fiber, cable, and satellite may make it difficult for AT&T’s approach to get much traction.