Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Verizon FiOS

A couple months ago, I switched to Verizon FiOS. Today, I'll talk about why I switched, what I got, and how things have been since I switched.

FiOS is Verizon's new network, offering phone, TV, and Internet service on a single set of lines, competing directly with traditional cable providers, such as Bright House or Comcast, for those same services.

Manatee County, Florida, and more specifically the southern part of the county, where I live, was "wired" for FiOS early in 2006. I use the term "wired" loosely, as FiOS is based on fiber optic technology, burying miles of fiber throughout the affected neighborhoods. I was somewhat annoyed at the time, as Manatee County had just finished burying new water lines in my neighborhood, laying fresh sod over the digging, and it seemed that sod had just gotten a good hold on the land when the crews came by and buried the fiber. Alas, the crews did not do as nice a job covering up behind them, leaving my yard somewhat less attractive when they left.

I said the neighborhoods were affected, and in that I wasn't just referring to the buried lines. FiOS is intended to replace the copper lines in the area, although it will be pretty gradual about the process. Any new phone service installed in the area would be done as part of FiOS. If a household subscribes to Verizon's FiOS TV, Verizon will automatically convert the phone service to FiOS as well. I do not know if one can get FiOS without phone service, but I find it unlikely. Purely speculating, I think the phone service is not actually necessary for FiOS to function, and the service itself could very likely be disabled at Verizon's end, leaving other services intact.

FiOS Phone

Unlike Bright House's phone offering, Verizon FiOS does not use VoIP for phone service. The phone service rides the common fiber through the neighborhood, and fiber is run from the main fiber line to an Optical Network Terminal (ONT), where it is separated from the other services. Your standard phone lines are connected to the ONT, and when the ONT is powered up, the standard phone line to the copper network is severed, and phone service is switched to the fiber line.

The up side of this is that many older neighborhoods have the copper lines running above ground, sharing poles with the power grid. Since the fiber is buried in my neighborhood, it is not subject to the service problems that came with the elevated lines. I used to be plagued with static, particularly after rain, that would occasionally make the phone line nearly unusable. this should never be a problem again.

The down side of the phone service is that the phones are no longer powered by the network. The ONT must be powered by the subscriber's power. The drain is small, equal to leaving a small light on 24/7, but when the power is interrupted, there is a risk that the phone will die as well. To reduce this risk, the ONT is attached to a battery backup, powered by a small, rechargeable, motorcycle-class battery, warranted for two years. Eventually the battery will need replacing, and I will be responsible for doing that, but the battery is fairly common, so I won't worry about it. The battery will support the ONT for at least four hours, after which you no longer have any service until power is restored. We had two hurricanes take out power for 12 hours each last year, pre-FiOS; I suggest you keep a charged cell phone battery handy if you anticipate a lengthy power outage and want the security of a phone beyond the life of the battery backup.

The battery backup is dedicated to the ONT. This is worth knowing as we discuss the other services.

FiOS Internet

For most of the rest of the country, FiOS Internet makes up your remaining service, as TV is only available where arrangements have been made with local authorities for Verizon to offer TV service. FiOS Internet is about on par with cable modem, although service offerings do allow you to purchase speeds in excess of that provided by coax-based cable.

Prior to FiOS, readers may recall I was using Verizon DSL. The most common DSL subscriber has a maximum download speed of 768 kbps and a maximum upload speed of 128 kbps, significantly slower than cable modem's advertised 5 mbps (typical cable modem speeds are closer to 1 mbps). DSL can be pumped up to as much as 3 mbps, but actual throughput will be less than that. For the purpose of comparison, we'll stick with the advertised values.

So, cable modem is typically faster than DSL, but FiOS starts at 5 mbps down and 2 mpbs up, or roughly twice the speed of cable modem, and seriously faster than my DSL. If I'm willing to pay for it, I can get my FiOS pumped up to 50 mbps! Not that I'd need that kind of speed to maintain Your World News.

Reason to switch, for sure, but that wasn't what made me do it. Switching didn't become an issue to me until I had a second technical snafu with my DSL subscription. I found that, because I live in a FiOS neighborhood, Verizon doesn't want to install DSL here any longer. Sure, I could push them to do it, but support calls would become a pain, as they would keep trying to pawn me off on FiOS.

Why was I hesitant? The system requirements. Verizon says FiOS Internet is supported on Windows 2000 and up, or on Macs. Not my older Windows 98 machines, not Linux, and not NetWare (I have an old NetWare 5.1 server on my network). A phone conversation with FiOS Tech Support straightened me out on that. The problem is two-fold, and not actually a problem at all. See, FiOS Tech Support doesn't promise to have assistance available for the other OSes, and besides, Windows 98 isn't going to notice the speed improvements. Ha! The system requirements aren't as stingy as I thought it might be. What I do on my private LAN side is essentially my problem, just like with DSL.

So, since my budget was tight, I went with the basic Internet package, and turned my attention to FiOS TV.

FiOS TV

TV service is something I wasn't quite ready for, but any other choices were simply impractical. We we not cable subscribers. I haven't been fond of Bright House since when they used to be part of Time Warner. I had my reasons for disliking Time Warner, but can only profess to stubbornness about Bright House. I had DSL, so I had no desire for cable modem, and no desire for TV cable if I didn't need it. We had DirecTV satellite, but were spending way too much for what we used, and FiOS TV offered digital signal quality coming over fiber (no rain fade, a big issue in Florida). So, giving up DirecTV for 180 basic channels of FiOS TV wasn't that difficult.

I ponied up for two set-top boxes: a master box with DVR capabilities for the living room, where we do most of our TV viewing, and a basic box for the small TV in the master bedroom. We didn't have DVR with our early-adopter satellite TV system, so I couldn't pass on the novelty of it. It sure beats VHS!

Choosing Internet and TV at the same time dictates a hardware change in the FiOS configuration. FiOS Internet comes with a rather conventional router, but the combined service calls for something on the unusual side.

Remember, phone service was split off from the fiber at the ONT. The TV and Internet signals are sent from the ONT to a Cat 5 twisted pair wire that ends at a special, Actiontec router. This router (which includes a fairly configurable firewall, satisfying my technical whims) splits the TV signal from the Internet traffic, sending the TV traffic through the house's pre-wired coax network (along with IP-based controls for the set-top boxes). The remaining Internet traffic is placed on a separate segment, offered through four conventional ports and a built-in 802.11b/g wireless transceiver.

The Difficulties

Now that I've had the service for a couple of months, I'm seeing a few issues, none of which so far make me regret the move. The first issue has yet to be solved, mostly because I haven't devoted serious time to tackling it. The TVs have been suffering from intermittent "tiling", where little squares of the picture seem to fall briefly out-of-sync with the rest of the picture. As this is intermittent, they are a devil to catch, and the first round of troubleshooting (changing out attenuators that regulate the signal level) seemed to do little good. I'm preparing to call them back on it.

The second issue occurred when I found I was getting hit with a series of port scans that drove my incoming traffic much higher than normal. I found that I was having trouble changing my dynamic IP address. The commands would execute on the router, but it kept getting the same address back. I called Verizon Tech Support for assistance, and they discovered they were also unable to get the address to change. I wouldn't go as far as to say I had a static address for the price of a dynamic one, but it sure felt like it.

The router has some other minor annoyances, particularly in trying to stop the reporting of specific firewall rule violations, requiring me to filter those reports with a third-party tool. I don't think they planned for many subscribers to pay attention to the firewall as much as I do. I get questionable traffic generated by the router, itself, but the documentation for the router is difficult to obtain, and fairly weak when it is found.

The most recent issue is fairly predictable, but one needs to keep it in mind in any case. The battery backup only works for the ONT. A power problem does impact the rest of the system. Make sure you have at least one conventional, line powered phone, if you want to use the phone line during a power outage (true in any phone system, of course). While you won't be watching TV during an outage (in most cases), the set-top boxes lose their menuing system when the power goes off. When the power comes back, the boxes connect to Verizon over the Internet to download fresh menus, including those used to access the DVR. This means you may have an extended period after power comes back when you can't watch a DVR recording or do more than flip through the TV channels one at a time. A recent extended outage left us waiting an extra 15 minutes or so after the power came back before we could resume a recorded movie, and that still left us having to fast forward through the recording to find where we left off.

Putting these devices on UPSes might help. Certainly keeping the router powered would allow you to use the Internet via independently powered computers (probably at a loss of ONT operating time), but putting the set-top boxes on UPSes might also prevent the annoying delay of service resumption I just described. That is entirely up to you.

Conclusion

Verizon FiOS wasn't something I anticipated getting right now, but it hasn't been a very painful investment, and I think my overall quality of life has improved by having done so. The gains clearly beat the drawbacks, and I'd suggest anyone eligible to subscribe should give it serious consideration.

6 comments:

William said...

My retired parents live in nearby Sarasota. Verizon installed FiOS in their neighborhood last year (2006) as well. In early January of this year (2007), I had their broadband Internet connection switched from Comcast cable to FiOS. The speed is somewhat faster than cable, but nothing that my parents will notice. The cost for broadband Internet service is about the same as well (FiOS @ $40/month vs. Comcast's $43/month).

As with Alan, Verizon switched the phone service from their copper POTS network to FiOS at the time of the install. This has done a lot to improve the voice quality on the line. Previously, my parent's phone line was periodically plagued with static and other annoyances that Verizon said were likely the result of water intrusion on aging underground wiring and connections. This was a problem of longstanding; Verizon's attempts at repairing this were met with only limited success. (It seemed to me that Verizon was little motivated to replace existing copper line, as it was their intention instead to go fiber.)

I considered switching their TV service from Comcast to FiOS as well. The cost for Verizon's "Premium Package" was $40/month - somewhat less than Comcast's comparable "Enhanced" package ($47.50/month).

However, I backed out of this for several reasons:

1 - You need to rent from Verizon a set-top receiver box for each TV you intend to use with the new system. The cost for each of these is $4/month (going up I'm told to $5/month). If you only need one or two of these, the monthly cost for FiOS TV is comparable to Comcast, but my parent's have seven TVs in different rooms. Perhaps eventually, this functionality will be incorporated into standard TV tuners, much as most TVs now come with "cable-ready" tuners. Then, it would no longer be necessary to rent set-top boxes.

2 – My second reason is a little more complicated and will not matter much to most folks. If you get FiOS TV, you have to use a MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance) compatible router. The Actiontec route that comes with the FiOS install is such a router. It has similar functionality to most consumer-grade 802.11g wireless routers, but also has a coax connection on the back. With FiOS TV, the router distributes a TV signal to your home's existing coax network through this coax connection.

Like many consumer-grade wireless routers, the Actiontec router allows dynamic VPN (virtual private network) pass-through but does not support static VPNs. This may not be a consideration for most people, but I have a permanent VPN between my place and my parents' so I can manage their systems remotely. (Being able to remotely view & control someone's system is especially helpful when they call asking for help and don't know how to accurately describe the problem.)

Having a static VPN means that the router that is exposed to the public Internet needs to be able to support a static VPN. I suppose I might be able to position the Actiontec router inside my VPN router, but there's no assurance that my VPN router can support passing the TV signal. Also, the folks from Verizon said they would need to "see" the Actiontec router from their end in order for the TV component to work correctly.

Anyway, you can see why I gave up on this. Hopefully, by the time all TVs come with FiOS-compatible tuners, all consumer-grade & MoCA-compatible routers will also be VPN routers.

Alan Frayer said...

Interesting comment, William. A couple thoughts on your reasons for not switching their TV service, none of which are likely to change your mind, but might help balance the discussion:

Since the TV set-top boxes are dependent on IP for programming management, for TVs to be shipped "FiOS Ready", the TVs would need their own IP client. I think you see where I'm going with this, and I can easily imagine the day when the TV gives up channels for IP addresses, but I don't see this feature coming soon.

As for the static VPN, this is something not traditionally needed by consumers (it just isn't very often that a consumer needs a permanent connection to another consumer). You don't say why a dynamic VPN wouldn't do the job, however. I'd like to learn more.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately most comsumers are NOT aware that in February of 2009 every cable tv proiovider is going to have to go to digital so unless the tv manufacturers can incorporate digital converters into their tv's, you will need a "cable box" to get a picture on your tv.

That is one of the biggest points I get from customers. With Comcast basic customers get 70+ channels without a box. They can't understand why they will need a box with our FIOS service. Without a box you will still receive tv but only about 22 channels.

Alan Frayer said...

Anonymous has an interesting point, but I wonder how much impact that rule will actually have. Most TVs I've encountered, in a very informal survey, already have digital tuners. For those that don't, the FCC requires cable companies to allow third-party set-top boxes, so the price of these boxes is likely to become pretty competitive.

Anonymous said...

I don't think "anonymous" is necessarily correct. Feb 2009 is the analog _broadcast_ cutoff date. Cable can continue to be analog as long as the local cable company is willing to convert the digital broadcast signals to analog (they may not be, perhaps because it's too expensive).

Russ said...

I think Verizon FiOS has come along way and really, is there anyone out there that beats the speed that they provide. Probably not. The kinks are being worked out and their service will only get stronger as 2009 progresses. Cable will take some time to catch up.