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.

OpenDNS – free and extremely useful.

Image representing OpenDNS
Image via CrunchBase

OpenDNS is one of those great services that is simply a no-brainer. It is a bit technical and for the lay-person may take 30 minutes to 1 hr. to understand what exactly the service does, why it is important, and how to get it setup on their home network…but trust me – its worth it.

So, first off, what is OpenDNS? To understand OpenDNS one has to have an understanding of how the internet works. When we want to make a phone call we need to know the phone number of the individual we are calling. If we don’t know this number, we use a phone book to look up their number. We don’t simply page through all the numbers until we find the right one – we have a way of ordering the numbers so we can quickly find the number associated with a specific person – namely, we have their last name, first name in alphabetical order.

Computers work on a similar system – what we call the Domain Name System (DNS). When you type in www.yahoo.com or www.google.com or any other website (www.daveenjoys.com) your computer sends a request out to a DNS server (think a yellow pages or 411) and says, “Hey, what is the number for www.yahoo.com?” The DNS server replies back with something like 69.147.76.15. This is called the “IP Address” of the computer. So, just as you can’t type into your phone “Dave Mackey” and have it dial my cell number – so you cannot type into a computer www.google.com and get that website – it has to find the number and use that to get to the website. Obviously, all of this happens transparently to us as end users – and in a split second.

When you sign up with an Internet Service Provider (AOL, Comcast, Verizon Fios, Earthlink, etc.) they give your computer IP addresses at which their DNS servers reside. Whenever your computer looks for a website – it uses these DNS servers to find out the site’s IP address.

Okay, I know, I know…that was long and boring…But we are almost done. If your ISP provides a DNS server and its free and you never have to even know its there…why would anyone ever want to use OpenDNS? I’m so glad you asked!

  • Speed – The DNS servers provided by ISPs are notoriously slow and this oftentimes results in slow website loading as your computer waits and waits to find out what the IP address of a server is from the DNS server…before it can even try loading the website. OpenDNS is renowned for their speed – and this has continued even with extensive usage by individuals, companies, and organizations throughout the world.
  • Reliability – ISP DNS servers sometimes go down. OpenDNS servers are up all the time. Okay, okay, nobody can be perfect – but they are as close as you can come.
  • Parental Controls – Don’t want your teenager surfing for porn? Worried grandma might get suckered in by one of those phishing scams? OpenDNS provides robust (and free) filtering controls that protect not only against adult materials (if you want) but also against phishing and other illegal and shady scams. There is a huge amount of granularity here as well – that is, you can choose by category exactly what sites can and can’t be visited and you can individually whitelist (allow) or blacklist (disallow) individual sites.
  • Statistics – Want to know how your internet is being utilized? OpenDNS allows you to perform advanced statistical analysis on how your internet is being used. Think your internet is slow? Maybe its because somebody won’t stop downloading massive files all day and night.
  • There’s more, go over and check out OpenDNS’ page on their services to learn about all the great features.

Seriously – OpenDNS is amazing…and its not just for your home – its for your business, your school, your church – and its always free. So what are you waiting for? It’ll be a 30 mins. – 1 hr. well spent!

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.[1]
  • 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.

  1. [1]This 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.

Verizon FiOS.

Growing up I lived in Westerlo New York. No, its not a big town. Yes, that’s the reason you’ve never heard of it. In any case, its way out in the middle of nowhere and to this day large portions of the town can only access the internet via 56k…err, make that 28.8k. As a teenager I spent so many hours waiting for a page to load – I learned to read a book at the same time I was surfing the web (a habit that stays with me to this day).

Actiontec MI424WR wireless router
Image via Wikipedia

When I moved to Pennsylvania I experienced what high speed internet was on Philadelphia Biblical University’s campus. Granted, the speeds weren’t that amazing – but since I worked oftentimes over winter and summer breaks when most of the students were away things cracked along at amazingly fast speeds. The bonded T1’s providing 3 Mbps of internet connectivity.

For a while I moved back to dial-up, until I was hired by Collages.net Inc. Then I moved up to DSL – and through several different providers including Verizon and Speakeasy. This continued until Charity and I bought our current home – and they had just begun FiOS layouts. So we had the FiOS run.

What exactly is FiOS? I’m glad you asked. Lets take a minute to talk about the different types of connectivity one can have:

  • Dial-Up – Uses traditional copper lines and communicates via analog signals. At the sender’s end the modem translates everything into analog and then it must be converted back into digital on the receiving. Okay, that’s not the big problem – the real problem is that dial-up operates at 56kbps at its fastest – and that’s slow.
  • Cable Modem – Operates over the same lines that the cable video network runs over. Much bigger pipes but everyone in a local area shares the same pipe. If you are the only person or one of a small number using cable, things go fast – but start to build up a lot of users at a local node and internet speeds will begin to deteriorate. Common speeds are around 1-8 Mbps (~1000-8000 Kbps).
  • DSL – Runs over traditional phone lines but at much higher speeds than dial-up yet usually at lower speeds than cable’s theoretical maximums. Oftentimes speeds where in the range of 1-2 Mbps.
  • FiOS – Uses dedicated fiber run to the individual home, providing exceptional speeds as high as 20-40 Mbps currently (~20,000-40,000 Kbps) and starting at 5 Mbps!

As you can begin to see from the above breakdown of service types (yes, I ignored satellite, ISDN, etc.) – FiOS kicks butt for two reasons. First, it has a dedicated line and second its speed is excellent. Not to say that cable can’t catch up, but it will require significant infrastructure upgrades by the cable providers.

So, anyways, I’ve really enjoyed FiOS and have very few complaints. But, to be fair, I’ll list the issues I’ve encountered with FiOS:

  • The technicians who installed my FiOS where telecommunications guys and didn’t really understand how FiOS or the internet in general worked. Verizon has been cross-training these guys, but they are still relative newbies. Perhaps they are better now with two years of experience under their belts.
  • Verizon at one point canceled my line due to a billing mistake on their end. Their network did not recognize I had been successfully connected and yet I had internet access, so out of the blue I lost internet connectivity when they decided one day to terminate my connection. They rectified this within 3-5 days.
  • Verizon is horrific if you have to call them. Granted, I barely ever have to call for technical support – but if you do, be ready for your patience to be tried. The worst part is the automated phone system. By the time you reach a technician you are ready to strangle someone. The technician’s themselves aren’t bad, though sometimes lack the ability to effectively troubleshoot the issue (I’m a network guy). The worst though is after dialing through their automated system and waiting on hold for 10-15 minutes you receive this message, “We are sorry, all lines are busy. Please call back later.” What?!?!
  • They only warranty their routers for a year. If your router dies after that period expect to either pay them a hefty fee (and it will die) or go to Best Buy/Circuit City and pick up a new unit (unfortunately, you’ll need to be a geek to figure out how to configure the router).

Okay, I know those sound like a lot of negatives…But its the best experience I’ve had thus far from an ISP. I’m pleased with the speeds and with the technology. If Verizon could work on the customer service aspect they’d have one killer service.