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AT&T details plan for ‘broadband’ network

But firm unsure when the service will be available

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The day is coming when Utahns will be able to pay the same company for cable TV, warp-speed Web surfing and good old-fashioned telephone calling.

That's the plan from AT&T Cable Services, which is upgrading the existing TCI cable lines along the Wasatch Front to provide broadband service. On Tuesday, AT&T's Steve Proper gave a presentation to the Salt Lake County Commission on what that will mean for consumers, and while he didn't give firm availability dates, he had 20 minutes of promises about Internet access and consumer choice.

Proper began by defining "broadband": It's a network, run on fat coaxial cables, that's broad enough to provide scores of TV channels, split-second Internet connections and digital phone service, simultaneously.

AT&T, which merged with TCI in March 1999, has already spent some $140 billion buying conventional U.S. cable systems and turning them into broadband providers. The Wasatch Front is one of the first 10 American markets (including Dallas, the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland and Seattle) being upgraded, Proper said.

"We're very, very focused on competing with US WEST (now Qwest) and offering consumers a choice," added Salt Lake AT&T spokeswoman Barb Shelley after the presentation.

"I want to know when you're going to bring this to my house," said Commissioner Brent Overson, who lives in Taylorsville. Proper didn't give a clear answer.

"It's still marketing talk," Overson said later. "They advertise their '@home' service on TV, but I don't know anybody who has it. It's kind of like the I-15 project. They say, 'Here's what we're going to do, here's what we've done,' but you still can't drive the freeway. They have all these brilliant ideas, but you still can't ride the Internet."

But Shelley said AT&T's high-speed Internet access is available now — inside Salt Lake City, Murray, North Ogden and in much of Taylorsville and Ogden. "It'll be in West Valley City within days, and Provo and Logan within weeks."

Shelley wouldn't say how many broadband Internet subscribers AT&T has because the service "is so new."

Broadband Internet connections are up to 100 times faster than 28.8 phone modems, so they let people download Web pages without what some ruefully call the "world wide wait." Broadband promoters tout the service as the Ferrari of cyberspace, saying that in the near future it will enable us to download movies, engage in desktop teleconferences and connect instantly with our office computer systems so we can work more at home. In Utah AT&T charges $39.99 per month for a broadband connection, or $29.99 per month if the customer buys a cable modem for about $150 at an electronics store. Qwest also offers high-speed Internet connections via its phone lines, at rates similar to those of AT&T.

Even with technology at its highly evolved stage, AT&T still has to dig trenches under city streets for its fiber-optic cable. Right now digging is under way in West Valley City, Provo, Clearfield and Clinton, plus a few other Davis County communities, spokesman Scott Dansie said. The company also houses its electronics in above-ground utility poles and backyard boxes.

While broadband Internet service has yet to blanket the Wasatch Front, AT&T cable TV is wired into 260,000 of the 600,000 households in the company's coverage area, Shelley said. Subscribers pay anywhere from $11.51 for basic cable to $69.99 per month for 155 TV channels.

When will all of the cities from Logan to Provo have access to AT&T's three products — cable TV, high-speed Internet and digital telephone service?

"We really don't know for sure. We would like to finish in just a few years, but we're struggling with getting the skilled work force who knows how to work with the fiber optics of the upgrade," Shelley said. AT&T currently employs nearly 1,000 workers in Utah and has an annual payroll of $49.2 million.

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com