Jun 102011

I just helped a family member choose and connect to AT&T U-verse Internet service. Funny thing, I can’t get this service at Chicago downtown, but they can get it in the burbs. My home AT&T ADSL is maxed out at 6 Mbps (real achieved bandwidth is usually between 4-5 Mbps) and with my help they choose the sweet spot which is currently U-verse Max at 12 Mbps for $40/month or $60 combined with U-verse unlimited phone service (online deal only, ordered end of May, 2011). U-verse uses fiber connection to the distribution box, where it becomes copper ADSL, so this way the CO (“central office”) comes much closer to the subscriber and thus it can achieve much higher download speeds, as confirmed by my bandwitdh tests shown below.

The equipment was delivered about one week before the scheduled installation date in a much bigger and heavier box than I expected. Once we opened everything I was pleasantly surprised to see a nicely sized backup battery that is included in the setup (probably because of the phone service bundle, although I suppose even bare Internet users may be getting the same package). The 2Wire modem/router/access point is huge with perforated metal top and bottom, which surely saves it from overheating that often affects much smaller routers. Unfortunately, its WiFi radio is only 802.11 b/g, without the faster 802.11n or less crowded 802.11a functionality, but at least it allows for WPA2 with AES encryption. At maximal theoretical throughput of 54 Mpbs this puts it far above the maximum theoretical download speed of U-verse, which is 24 Mbps, and it shouldn’t be a bottleneck in theory unless you have multiple/slow/distant clients competing for bandwidth. Still, I am a bit disappointed with the lagging wireless technology.

According to the instructions we could perform the setup any time after AT&T’s service activation scheduled for after 8 p.m. on the given date. We did it the next day just because I wanted to have enough time and all the regular daytime tech support available in case anything went wrong. The first technician who showed up on the service activation date couldn’t find a distribution box in the house so he opened a ticket for an outside tech to “do the magic”, which was surprisingly done the very same day before the scheduled activation time in spite of the stormy weather.

The setup we chose is the self-installation kit, simple for techies like us, but there is also an alternative option for those who have no technical skills or affinities to have this set up by AT&T. After connecting and powering up the system and completing the new user registration, the utility asked me to download some software, probably trying to configure my laptop for direct connection, which I definitely don’t need, so instead of doing that I quit and used my internet browser and the advanced configuration information printed on the label on the bottom of the box, which is how I configure most DSL modems and routers. The first thing was to change the WiFi encryption keys and the default encryption from “WPA-PSK (TKIP) and WPA2-PSK (AES)” to WPA2-PSK (AES) only, also changing IP addresses, DHCP scope and the router password.

Activating U-verse voice service required a phone call via automated prompts and without human interaction on the other side, but there was some confusion left behind: after that I had four filters (just like regular DSL filters) that I didn’t know what to do with. They look like they should go in between the phone line and phone just like with regular DSL service, but the instructions didn’t say what to do with them. I called tech support and they told me to plug the phones through these filters, but that didn’t do anything – when I would call the phone number, it would go straight to voicemail, but I was still able to dial out and establish a connection with and without the filter. Go figure. Then I connected the phone to the phone connector in the back of the U-verse router (as clearly stated in instructions) and that same phone number was now receiving and making calls. Sheesh, I thought, AT&T just messed up their phone service to this house because of multiple phones connected to the same line and only one phone connection (and one auxiliary, whatever that means) on the back of the router, but luckily, the three cordless phones here had only one base station and two remote charging stations that don’t require phone cables so in this case it works OK. I don’t think this U-verse “feature” would otherwise work well for homes with phones scattered throughout the house and connected to the same line, because it would require extra wiring. In any case, unable to figure out what to do with the filters, I disconnected them, and I suppose they are there probably for people who don’t believe in VOIP and choose U-verse only for internet access, leaving their POTS (phone) line untouched. One more confusing thing, they opted to keep the existing number; there is also an option to get a new number, which doesn’t make much sense to me, but more options are always better. However, since the phone calls were coming in both over U-verse and over the regular phone line I asked AT&T’s U-verse tech support whether the POTS account had to be canceled, but they didn’t know and gave me a different telephone number to call. I don’t understand why this can’t be managed by the same department, but I haven’t called them yet. If the calls are still coming in through the regular phone line several days later, I’ll call to inquire.

Internet bandwidth looks as sweet as expected and in general it is at least twice as fast as my home DSL SBC Yahoo (read AT&T) acess, which makes sense because I have 6 Mbps in theory and this is 12 Mbps in theory. I re-run the tests in about 2 weeks and used the average. Both rounds were run early afternoon. I will repeat in a few months and add some evening results (when most people watch streaming videos like Netflix and Hulu). During the second round of tests two weeks later I noticed a bit higher (better) download and a bit lower (worse) upload results in most cases. Here are the results in same order of appearance as in my “Bandwith Tests” link from the top menu:

dslreports: 11,277 kbps download / 980 kbps upload / 37 ms ping. I had to use fiber test because their DSL test goes only up to 8 mbps and it was inaccurate.

OOKLA: 11,240 kbps/ 1,386 kbps / 24ms (wow! on the ping – this is great for gamers – my home DSL ping was ~65 ms)
MLAB: 11,610 kbps / 1,257 kbps / 61 ms

speedtest.net: 11.48 Mbps / 1.41 Mbps / 35 ms

frontier.net: 11,180 kbps / 1,319 kbps

foxvalley.net: 11,815 kbps / 1,235 kbps

bandwidthplace.com: 10.51 Mbps / 1.33 Mbps

speakeasy.net (OOKLA): 11.14 Mbps / 1.33 Mbps

cnet.com: 11,210 kbps

The infamous cap that AT&T imposes is 250 GB for U-verse, which is 100 GB more than for their DSL, so together with having double the speed for virtually same monthly subscription amount, U-verse seems to be a much better deal in general. With Verizon FIOS not being available anywhere in Illinois yet (I guess Ma Bell must have great ties in Chicago and Illinois politics), I wish at least this service were available in my Chicago downtown building.

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