Dial-up, Satellite, Cable, or FiOS: Finding the Right for Internet Service for the Whole Family

[This article is a guest post by Bobby Sledge. Bobby is a web developer who blogs about mobile technology from his home in northern California.]

Your spouse loves the convenience of Internet shopping. Your kids are absolutely addicted to online gaming. You just want to be able to access your email, pay your monthly bills, and keep up with the major headlines of the day.Photo of Internet Router.

So what type of Internet service is right for you and your family? With all of the options out there, making the proper decision can feel overwhelming. In the rapidly evolving world of computer technology, it seems as though new techniques, equipment and methodologies are unveiled on a daily basis.

If you’re feeling a little bit behind in the high-tech rat race, take heart in the fact that you aren’t alone. Bombarded with constantly changing information about servers, browsers, explorers, portals, and protocols, it’s easy to simply throw up your arms in frustration.

Before you tackle the daunting task of choosing an ISP, start with a quick review of some key terms and confusing jargon. For those of you who are already scratching your heads, let’s start with the acronym ISP.

  • ISP – ISP stands for Internet service provider. These are companies that provide online access in exchange for a monthly fee.
  • Bandwidth – You may have some idea that bandwidth is closely related to online browsing speed, but what exactly is it? In a nutshell, bandwidth is used to measure the overall capacity of any given Internet connection. Systems with more bandwidth can provide faster service. This means that you can access webpages, send messages, download files, and play games with fewer glitches and/or delays.
  • Latency – Closely related to bandwidth, this term refers to the amount of time needed to actually transfer data from one point to another. If the so-called “information superhighway” were an actual, physical road, bandwidth could be thought of as the total number of traffic lanes. Latency, on the other hand, would represent the overall travel time from your hometown to your destination city. Thus while increasing the number of lanes (“bandwidth”) can increase your speed, it won’t do any good if your cars can only travel 35 MPH (“latency”).

With these terms in mind, you and your family can now begin to assess your various ISP options. Let’s begin with the slowest and most affordable option: Basic dial-up.

  • Dial-up – Although adequate for the occasional Internet user who doesn’t mind slow speeds, dial-up is rapidly being replaced by much faster broadband options such as DSL, cable, and fiber. Activities that require more bandwidth (such as streaming online movies) are often impossible with basic dial-up service.
  • DSL – An acronym for Digital Subscriber Line, DSL services offer high-speed access over traditional phone lines that can handle most modern Internet applications. However, if your family regularly downloads large amounts of data or plays complex online games, you may experience latency issues. These issues can become particularly pronounced if your home is located over a certain distance from your provider’s central office.
  • Cable – Unlike DSL, cable broadband speeds remain constant no matter where your home is located. Fast and reliable, it can generally facilitate the vast majority of online uses, but it typically costs a bit more than both dial-up and DSL.
  • Fiber – Offering the fastest Internet speeds on the market, FiOS (or Fiber Optic Service) uses fiber optics to transfer data at the speed of light, according to VerizonInternet.com. Keep in mind, however, that FiOS is presently available in select markets only.

Editor’s Notes

  • I would not recommend anyone purchasing dial-up. It is antiquated, requires a traditional phone line, and is painfully slow.
  • Cable is not truly “constant” – it actually shares the pipe between all users in a specific geographic region – so the more users that are online simultaneously, the slower the connection becomes.
  • Fiber – AT&T and Verizon both offer fiber packages. It uses light-based technology, but don’t expect seismic based speed increases over DSL or Cable. I have Verizon FiOS in my home.

Verizon FiOS – Incompetence?

Background:


On July 8th, 2008 I wrote a post raving about Verizon FiOS, a high-speed fiber-to-home internet solution that has clearly kicked the butt of all the competition on a performance/cost basis. I’d been using the service for around two years at that juncture. On October 20th, 2008 I wrote another post, this time chronicling the extreme distress I was experiencing with my Verizon FiOS connection. It is now November 5th, 2008 and my issue is still not resolved. The problem began on 10/16 and continues to the present. I have spent 10+ hours on the phone with Verizon over a period of days and have opened multiple tickets including PADQ01JC660 and PADQ01KD8X (which was closed for an unknown reason) and now PAFS010562.

The Problem:

Verizon’s first tier technical support is decent, they can fix 99% of mom and pop problems. This means if you have a standard problem (e.g. router died or needs to be rebooted, you need to enter a password, ip needs to be renewed, etc.) you’ll most likely have no problem getting rapid support. The issue is with escalation. After the first level of support their are “Network Technicians”, these are the people who are supposed to analyze and resolve complex issues. Unfortunately, multitudinous experiences indicates:

  • Network Technicians do not communicate concerning tickets.
  • Network Technicians do not perform necessary troubleshooting on tickets.

I should note, as a Network Engineer, I understand some of the dilemma faced by network technicians. First, one is constantly bombarded by a large number of false positives. People will insist they have a problem that is your fault when it is their own. Second, network technicians generally tend to enjoy working on problems more than communicating about problems. Okay, this is natural…but this has been ridiculous. Ignore it once, okay – not the best idea but understandable. Ignore it twice – okay, bad idea. Ignore it three (four, five) times and now we are getting to the point of inciting righteous anger on the part of the consumer.

The Resolution:

I can’t remark on the specifics of resolving this issue, since I am not within the Verizon NT group, but I will comment generally on ways to resolve this sort of consumer abuse:

  • Ensure network techs. are not overtasked. A network tech. will let “questionable” problems fall through the cracks when he is over-engaged by “real” problems.
  • Enable a linking method for tickets and an analysis system that will detect repeat callers and allow for appropriate escalation to resolve the issue.
  • Offer a web-based ticketing system with tickets automatically visible via phone call. Allow consumers to view and respond to ticket modifications.1This way if a ticket is closed, the consumer knows it…rather than waiting a day or two to call back in about the issue to find out that the NT never did anything with the issue.
  • Its all about communication. If a network tech. doesn’t believe its a real issue he needs to communicate this back to the first tier tech., and the first tier tech. needs to talk to the consumer more…But in no case should a ticket simply be dropped.

UPDATE 11/07/08:

Well, life is back to normal…after around two weeks. I called in and told them I would remain on the line until the NT was available. They told me he would call back within 48 hours. I insisted on knowing what the tech. thought was the problem. The NT said he would call back in four hours. I still insisted on knowing what the tech. thought was the problem, this didn’t get very far…I concluded by asking the first tier helpdesk to inform the NT that I was placing all Verizon related tickets online and that if this news made it into mainstream press the NT could be assured Verizon higher-ups would be looking for someone to sacrifice. I received a call-back within an hour or two. The problem had been resolved. It had been an issue with the configuration of their Juniper switches…I am happy now but think that my suggestions above still carry significant weight. It shouldn’t have taken two weeks to make a configuration change.

Image thanks to striatic’s generous creative commons license.

Verizon Fios – The Ugly Side.

I’ve talked about how great Verizon Fios is previously. And at that time I noted a few downsides that hurt the service quality but still noted the ISP was the best I’d used. Today I’m going to rant a little longer about the ugly side of FiOS, mainly because I have just gone through/am still going through an excruciating experience1I rant in part about these types of situations because the bureaucracy in these large companies makes it almost impossible to get help. Oftentimes a blog posting is the most effective way to get real help.. That said, I still recommend FiOS2I recommend more the technology than the service. At this juncture there is no alternative provider with the same technology available in this geographic region. On a similar note, the use of traditional DSL through alternative providers does not actually circumvent utilizing Verizon as these providers operate over Verizon’s lines. Satellite/Cable are true alternatives and WiMax (Sprint’s Xohm) when it becomes available will be another real alternative.

On Thursday, 10/16/08 I tried to log onto the internet. No connection. Between 10/16-10/17 I would make seven major phone calls to Verizon in an attempt to resolve this issuing totaling approximately 250 minutes (over 4 hours). Verizon for an unknown reason3Not only unknown to me but also unknown to them. They did not know why I was disconnected, just that they had done it. disconnected my FiOS service4Second time this has happened since establishing service with them.. Okay, no big deal – reestablish the service5Unfortunately it takes hours for this to occur. As a Network Engineer I am still unable to comprehend what could possibly take so long in the assignment of an IP address when all the physical wiring actually exists and has for some time.. They create an entirely new account and inform me at the same time that I can no longer have my less-expensive 5 Mbps/2 Mbps subscription but must upgrade to a 10 Mbps/2 Mbps. Again, not a huge deal – $10/mo. – but doesn’t make an unhappy customer happy when you screw up and then demand he pay a higher price for the service.

The installation was supposed to be completed by the end of that day. At the end of the day I called back, ohh – somebody screwed up the order. I would talk to approximately three people between that call and calls the following day attempting to get the order straightened out. They placed at least two new orders and finally one of them kicked through. In all, it was around 48 hours without internet access.

Then the internet access finally returned. Great! I’m a happy man…Till its slower than DSL. I run some speedtests. Yup, certainly slower than DSL – and ping tests against Google/Yahoo’s servers revealed that occasional timeouts where occurring and response times were slow (over 100 ms typical). More phone calls to Verizon6Unfortunately my cell records have not updated to show me the length of those calls, so I cannot report their exact duration – but it was several and the time was significant.. Yes, my service is now working. No, the service is very slow. How do I know? Well, I used a bandwidth test. Run through the normal diagnostics – resetting wireless router, plugging directly into FiOS connection, resetting the FiOS box outside my house – sending the issue over to a tech. to look at. The pings drop down – Google/Yahoo now in the 10 ms range, but the speed is still horrific. Maybe its the bandwidth tester – well, I trust Speakeasy’s test but, sure, let’s try Verizon’s. Verizon shows even more dismal speeds. Ahh, forget Verizon’s speed test let’s try speedtest.net. Now if I go to the server in Newark I get 10 Mbps, but almost everywhere else its slow as anything. Will I run the FiOS settings optimizer7Glorified IE/TCP optimizer.? Sure. Still nothing. I’m tired, I’m going in circles. I talk to a supervisor. Same thing. They want to send me a new router. Sure, you can do that, but since I’m plugging directly into the connection and bypassing the router it’s not the router. Okay, we’ll have a technician look at it. Great – never hear from them again.

The connection has slowly improved. Dropped packets have decreased, but overall the network is slow. Streaming video doesn’t work well – unless you happen to hit 1% of the servers that seem to be operating on Verizon’s network at high speeds.

So, that is my situation as of today. Two days without internet – now extremely slow internet. Calling into technical support is an exercise in frustration. I can’t speak to someone who understands the problem is a technical issue on Verizon’s side. My guess? Either my circuit settings where entered wrong or they have a bad router somewhere along the line. 99% of my traffic is going through the bad router – if I happen to hit a server that takes another route (doesn’t use that router) then I get good speeds.

Anyone else having this problem? The phone support from Verizon has improved in that I don’t spend 15 minutes dialing through automated voice support – but the help desk support doesn’t have a clear escalation path beyond themselves and so I am at an ends. Vague promises of a “network tech.” looking into it and no followup leaves me with little hope of a long-term solution.

UPDATE:

Spoke to a technician at Verizon who knew what I was talking about and again submitted a ticket to the network tech. guys. His name was Dan…If any Verizon people do read this, he needs a promotion – his networking knowledge is far beyond most of his peers. In any case, he agrees the issue is one with the route being taken to reach the final website. To give everyone an idea here is a tracert to google.com (note the length of the route, its extremely, ridiculously long):

1 1 ms <1 ms <1 ms Wireless_Broadband_Router.home [192.168.1.1]
2 4 ms 4 ms 4 ms L100.FTTP-02.PHLAPA.verizon-gni.net [68.238.240.1]
3 7 ms 6 ms 7 ms G1-0-881.LCR-08.PHLAPA.verizon-gni.net [130.81.110.108]
4 7 ms 6 ms 7 ms P14-2.LCR-02.STTLWA.verizon-gni.net [130.81.29.6]
5 7 ms * 7 ms 0.so-6-0-0.XL2.PHL6.ALTER.NET [152.63.3.81]
6 13 ms 12 ms 11 ms 0.so-6-0-0.XL4.IAD8.ALTER.NET [152.63.0.130]
7 13 ms 11 ms 12 ms 0.ge-3-3-0.BR2.IAD8.ALTER.NET [152.63.40.229]
8 22 ms 49 ms 99 ms 204.255.169.2
9 88 ms 86 ms 87 ms tbr1.wswdc.ip.att.net [12.123.8.106]
10 580 ms 576 ms 724 ms cr1.wswdc.ip.att.net [12.122.16.89]
11 580 ms 484 ms 96 ms cr2.phlpa.ip.att.net [12.122.4.53]
12 115 ms 97 ms 96 ms cr2.cl2oh.ip.att.net [12.122.2.209]
13 87 ms 87 ms 86 ms cr1.cl2oh.ip.att.net [12.122.2.125]
14 88 ms 87 ms 86 ms cr1.cgcil.ip.att.net [12.122.2.205]
15 99 ms 99 ms 99 ms cr1.st6wa.ip.att.net [12.122.31.162]
16 88 ms 86 ms 87 ms tbr1.st6wa.ip.att.net [12.122.23.130]
17 87 ms 86 ms 87 ms gar8.st6wa.ip.att.net [12.122.111.17]
18 98 ms 96 ms 117 ms 12.89.209.14
19 111 ms 96 ms 97 ms 209.85.249.32
20 103 ms 98 ms 89 ms 66.249.95.208
21 91 ms 92 ms 91 ms 72.14.233.37
22 92 ms 92 ms 104 ms 216.239.48.143
23 93 ms 106 ms 117 ms 209.85.251.125
24 102 ms 94 ms 104 ms 74.125.31.2
25 105 ms 104 ms 104 ms cg-in-f99.google.com [209.85.171.99]

Unfortunately 99% of the sites I visit appear to be routing in this same, obtuse method. 1% take a different router and operate at blazing fast speeds.