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AT&T’s DirecTV Now challenges Sling TV, PlayStation Vue…and DirecTV

Rob Pegoraro
·Contributing Editor

Cord cutters have a new online streaming option from one of the companies they might be trying to flee in the first place: AT&T (T).

On Monday the telecom giant unveiled a new online-only video service called DirecTV Now that includes many of the same channels you’d get through the company’s DirecTV satellite and U-Verse fiber-optic offerings but at a lower cost—and without the equipment-rental fees.

Here’s how DirecTV Now—available Wednesday—compares against two other online-only pay-TV services: Dish Network’s (DISH) Sling TV and Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation Vue.

Channels at what cost

DirecTV Now’s base subscription gets you about 60 channels for $35. From there you can go up to roughly 80 channels for $50, more than 100 channels for $60 (available for $35 to early subscribers), and 120 channels for $70. You can also stream to two devices at the same time.

The $35 deal should work for most viewers, as it includes major channels like AMC, CNN, ESPN and ESPN2, Discovery, Disney and Food Network, in addition to ABC, NBC and Fox local stations in “select market” (meaning those where the network owns the station). The $50 deal adds regional sports networks—needed to watch many home-team games—in unspecified “select markets.”

The $60 plan throws in the NHL and NBA networks, as well as Tennis Channel and Oxygen, while the $70 tier adds Starz Encore, Univision Deportes and not much else. You can add HBO to any of these for $5, which is a great deal.

DirecTV Now’s offerings are more expensive but less confusing than the choices at Dish Network’s Sling. That company’s basic $20 “Sling Orange” package gets 31 channels—including ESPN and its major sub-channels, AMC, CNN, Comedy Central, Food Network and HGTV but not any local stations.

In “select markets,” you can get local Fox and NBC feeds with a $25 Sling Blue bundle that adds Fox channels and the ability to watch on two devices at once—but drops the ESPN networks and Disney. A $40 Sling “Blue + Orange” bundle deal adds those back in. HBO is an extra $15.

PlayStation Vue pricing varies by market. In New York, it starts at $39.99 for 52 channels, including all four major broadcast networks as well as AMC, CNN, Discovery, Disney, Food Network and HGTV. In Washington, however, Vue is $10 cheaper but doesn’t include ABC and CBS affiliates.

Pricier plans throw in more sports and movie channels, and let you add HBO for $15 a month. But Sony’s service recently dropped Viacom’s (VIA) Comedy Central, MTV and BET from its offerings.

Devices and other limits

For the first few months, watching DirecTV Now on an actual TV will require an Apple (AAPL) TV, an Amazon (AMZN) Fire TV device, a Google (GOOG) Chromecast or certain smart TVs from Vizio or newcomer LeEco. Support for Roku’s streaming-media players and Chromecast output from DirecTV Now’s iOS app won’t come until sometime next year.

You’ll also be able to watch on Android and iOS apps, as well as desktop browsers.

Viewing over an AT&T wireless subscription won’t count against your data cap. That’s a particularly aggressive way for a company to promote its own service, but the Federal Communications Commission seems highly likely to let that slide under the next administration.

Sling is available on more devices, including not just the usual trio of Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV, but Android TV, Chromecast, Xbox One, Android, iOS, Mac and Windows apps—you just can’t watch in a regular browser.

Sony’s hardware options start with Apple TV, Roku and Fire TV but add its own PlayStation game consoles as well as Chromecast, Android TV, iOS, Android and desktop browsers.

If you watch Sling or Vue on your Sprint or T-Mobile device, you won’t take a hit to your data cap, though the resolution will be lower than the advertised DVD quality.

Vue includes a cloud-DVR option that lets you keep shows for up to 28 days, while Sling announced Monday that it would add its own cloud DVR option. DirecTV Now’s DVR won’t be available until next year.

The other big deal

For many cord cutters who just want to keep watching a handful of big-name channels, DirecTV Now doesn’t beat Sling or Vue’s pricing—especially for those blessed with good local over-the-air reception who don’t need to worry about the local channels absent from Sling’s $20 deal.

What sets DirecTV Now apart, however, is its possible competitive impact.

Until now, wired providers of subscription TV had taken care not to sell online-only TV packages to the Internet customers of other cable-TV firms—for example, the Stream option Comcast (CMCSA) launched last year is confined to its own markets. Dish’s Sling TV does compete nationwide, but so does its existing satellite-TV service.

AT&T appears to have broken an unwritten rule here by giving TV subscribers at Comcast, Verizon (VZ), Charter (CHTR) and other cable firms a whole new reason to dump those ever-more-expensive video bundles. Pass the popcorn, please.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.