Chicago Suburbs to AT&T: Hurry Up

Eleven Chicago suburbs have teamed up against AT&T Broadband in an effort to compel the MSO to return to the high-speed data deployment schedule it promised during 1999 transfer-approval proceedings.

"A couple of years ago, when they wanted something, all the top people came out and told us of their intentions," said Aurora, Ill., director of organizational development Tom Weisner.

Since then, AT&T Broadband has amended its schedule and officials of the affected municipalities — faced with mounting consumer complaints — have found it difficult to get the operator's attention.

Regulators recognize that high-speed data has been legally defined as a telecommunications product that's beyond the purview of a cable franchise. Their hope is that if they speak loudly enough, they'll be heard.

"Wall Street pays attention to Main Street," said one local official.

The localities hope the company will agree to put their towns back on a data-deployment schedule in order to silence its critics as parent AT&T Corp. undertakes a restructuring meant to increase shareholder value.

The mayors of Geneva, Yorkville, Sandwich, Oswego, Naperville, Batavia, St. Charles, North Aurora, Aurora, Plano and Montgomery sent a letter to local AT&T Broadband representatives last month complaining about "AT&T's failure, to date, to deliver on its assurances."

When AT&T assumed control of the systems — following its 1999 acquisition of Tele-Communications Inc. — local executives promised cities in the high-tech Fox Valley that the MSO would build a fiber-to-the-node system within 24 months. City officials said they were told new services would include digital TV and a cable-modem product.

To date, however, the operator has only added a handful of channels via video compression, and even that's only available in selected areas.

In Naperville, Ameritech New Media competes against AT&T, but the overbuilder does not offer high-speed Internet access as parent SBC Communications Inc. has committed to digital subscriber line technology. A spat between Ameritech and the Illinois Commerce Commission has stalled DSL deployment.

Frustrated consumers have complained at city halls throughout the region, especially since digital services are advertised throughout the market. Naperville has gone so far as to post a press release on its municipal Web site, which explains its powerlessness to its residents.

Naperville officials were told construction of a digital plant would start this spring, but nothing has happened, said community-relations manager Gary Karafat. But the city is still in a better position than some of its neighbors.

In Wheaton, AT&T Broadband stopped construction in mid-upgrade citing capital constraints, according to Karafat.

AT&T Broadband responded to the city's complaints in an April 4 letter, which attributed the upgrade delays to consolidation work in Chicago itself. The operator acquired that city's Prime Cable operation and has been consolidating its once-separately held systems there.

Officials in the suburbs scheduled a meeting with the cable operator for April 26.