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FiOS: A Reality Check

Bob Frankston

I wrote this in response to some interest in my experience with the reality of FiOS. The short summary is that there is no magic. Sure having Fiber is nice but it isn't that much different than my "cable" service. The bigger difference between Comcast and Verizon is in the nature of the businesses. Comcast is a content company trying to move on to it looks beyond the STB with its purchase of NBCU whereas Verizon seems to want to continue the 1990's vision of the STB as its entrée into the home.

We need to look past the shiny glass and wonder how wonderful FiOS really is. One strong lesson is that these companies need intervention — as long as they have their silos they are trapped in their own past. They are victims of the Innovator's Dilemma ever narrowing their user base and becoming more and more irrelevant. After all, it took them twenty years to become what cable companies were ten or so years ago.

I don't want to be entirely negative — Verizon recognizes the money is to be made using data not be limiting it. This puts them way ahead of others threatening caps and other meddling.

After writing this and playing a little more with the glitzy but broken "VZ Call Assistant" I am reminded of why old line companies have trouble doing software. They tend to treat it as a component they can specify and forget. Companies that understand software see it as a living thing and those involved have a sense about it. They also expect to learn by doing. Perhaps this is also the problem with hardware companies using to committing early on long term investments.

We also see this in the difficulty for many, but certainly not all, companies to provide API access. They are typically trying to patch over a business architecture that is at odds with ceding control. This is not necessarily due to business strategy driven more by feature lists rather than enabling architecture. "Broadband" being an example of this at the policy level.

I've had a number of broadband connections. I started with ISDN. In the mid 90's I was able to get Continental Cablevision's service (later renamed MediaOne). Fortunately Newton Mass was one of the very first to have broadband. Until I looked at the Wikipedia description I hadn't realized it was a US West acquisition. I knew of US West from when they approached Microsoft with their ADSL offering. It found its mate in my home networking effort.

I had DSL subscription. Verizon "went by the book" and gave me 756Kbps for the same price as 1.5Mbps because I was over 12000.00 feet. No concept of a testing to see the actual performance of the line.

Skipping ahead to FiOS; I've already written about my experience in getting FiOS installed.

I now do have FiOS and discovered that Comcast has upgraded me to DOCSIS 3.0. What is interesting in my metering is that the performance of the two is comparable. There are differences. Yesterday I measured the performance between Boston and London and found that Verizon happened to be better during that test. It's as if you have to be on the right Internet — but isn't there supposed to be just one? Maybe. But I've seen packets between my two adjacent Comcast and Verizon devices route through New York and then Chicago. I need to emphasize I used only simple metering — more sophisticated metering might show different policies for network management which reflect corporate philosophy though not the kind of neutrality I've written about.

When I first got my FiOS connection I did a comparison (with the help of Doc Searls) of the video quality between the two and Comcast did seem to be a little more aggressive on HD compression but overall the offerings are comparable. And so are the Set Top Boxes through Verizon seems to have put more effort into software for the box. Too bad if you put the two boxes atop each other the IR signals are read by both though the channel lineups are different and some signals toggle. It's a reminder of how much the IR protocols and Set Top Box protocols are artifacts of a long-gone era that started with Zenith's Space Commander.

Verizon does seem to be putting a lot of effort into making the STB into what it was supposed to have been back in the 1990's. They've added Twitter and Facebook and other widgets. My reaction to the Twitter widget is to titter as I watch it trying to use program name as keywords — lots of people use the word "cops". The IR remote controls are not very well suited to any nontrivial interaction. Even airlines have put keyboard on the backside of their remotes but it's hard to do that when you have to support millions of existing devices. In fact the Widgets on the screen seem to be an embarrassing attempt to get with the latest thing. Does Verizon really think it can finally fulfill the 1980's dream of Interactive TV as if the Internet were just a passing fad? Change comes slowly ... very slowly.

Verizon seems to be trying to improve the Set Top Box even as it is become irrelevant. I just noticed a feature where it attempts to diagnose signal problems but it can't get past the analog design point. They replaced analog noise with digital noise rather than moving to newer Internet protocols which degrade gracefully and don't behave differently for different "channels". Even for video on demand which is over IP there decoding artifacts instead of graceful degradation.

One feature I noticed advertised recently is the ability to see your Caller-ID on the TV — at least in theory. I signed up and am still awaiting to see the CLID. I did install the Verizon Assistant program that is supposed to show up on my screen when someone calls so I can see who is calling and respond. The UI on the app is not of the PC culture. Some of this is in little things like not honoring my date/time format. I've seen this emphasis on cute UIs in consumer electronics companies, including camera companies that overdesign the products instead of working with the standards we've gotten used to.

The app is a reminder of Verizon's problems. It's a second attempt after the failure of iobi. They depend on you having a faux landline. Verizon dropped VoiceWing, their IP based offering (and ATT dropped CallVantage). So they start out limiting their market to the trailing edge. And they can't seem to do the obvious — even if I add a number to the phone assistant's phone book it doesn't use the information when synthesizing the name for Call-by-name. So what use is it? The fact that it doesn't seem to work doesn't help but it seems almost a minor issue compared with the lack of any sense of a larger vision. If I tell it to automatically start when Windows starts it still requires the password again each time thus mooting the automatic startup.

This kind of silo thinking is endemic. If you use the Verizon ActionTec router then you can remote in to set your programming. But their router fails if you have a gamer in the house so I front end it with another router — at the suggestion of a Verizon techie. It's not that they lack the expertise but they lock it into their standard procedures. For example I have a dual WAN router but if I use it then I can't see the VoD content because the design presumes that I have a physical connection to Verizon. Having a second path (Comcast in this case) means that it is no longer true. The VoD itself going through my Draytek route. I can get about 2½ HD streams. But, again, it doesn't degrade gracefully — you start getting incomplete decompression.

Comcast has some similar issues with IP. They assume that you are using their SMTP server from one of their wired addresses. That's a reason I now use DynDNS for email — it means I don't have to worry about which provider's wires I'm using.

The news isn't all bad, Verizon recently stopped blocking port 80 and genuinely appears to have a strategy of maximizing the capacity available as their competitors express fears of "too much" usage. This is the market working, albeit imperfectly, with a player that makes networking capacity a competitive advantage ... for now.

The real message of all this is that the companies providing broadband live in a different world — a world where they continue to use their infrastructure for their offerings and view the Internet as just another offering. This is as one would expect.

We see this elsewhere in telecom — MMS protocols are based on Internet standards but devoid of the dynamics that drive evolution. They are locked into telecom standards. No wonder it's so difficult to interconnect MMS between carriers — it has to fit through the constrictions of the silos.

The remedy is to force a discipline in which they do their own products over IP (or a successor protocol) just like the rest of us. There is nothing they offer that can be done over IP. We see this with Comcast offering Fancast and buying NBCU.

While I put both the Cable Companies and the (ex)Telephone Companies into the same basket as Telecom their fates may be different. The cable companies are really in the content business with the cable as a means that might become optional. The old line phone companies seem to treat their wires as an asset and are struggling to find other ways to make money.

This is the real face of broadband offerings — carrier systems with a little Internet on the side. It is not about taking advantage of connectivity. Why are we putting those whose business models are from the 19th century in control of the 21st?

By Bob Frankston, Independent Internet Professional Bob has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum. Visit Page
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Share your comments

Testing over the Internet Dan Campbell  –  Dec 21, 2009 7:49 AM PST

Testing over the Internet is about as nebulous as it gets.  There are way too many variables, some of which are beyond the control of the two broadband providers you are attempting to test side by side.  If you told two people to drive from Boston to LA without telling each other what routes they’d take, they’d probably take some of the same roads and some different ones arriving not quite at the same time but close, and the results wouldn’t say much about the roads, the cars or the drivers unless there was a dramatic difference.  You didn’t elaborate on what testing you did – I assume that’s what you mean by “metering” – but if it was simple web page downloads or even file transfers, then the tests really are misleading.  Once you get to a certain network speed, which both carriers in this case provide, such simple tests will not show the real differences, or the results will vary and be somewhat inconclusive.  If anything, your tests were affected more by the 7,000 mile round trip latency between Boston and London as TCP backs off as latency increases and sessions slow down.  If you were viewing video streams over IP and attempting to saturate the pipes, then that’s a little better.  As far as traffic going to NY or Chicago, that’s just routing and peering.  It may seem odd, but BGP policy is up to the providers and they may tune it for any number of reasons including what they pay for backbone circuits or peering connections or where their peering connections are.  Some may carry traffic on-net longer while others dump it off to another provider as fast as they can (hot potato routing).  It may seem odd to go to Chicago (but not NY) from Boston to get to London – and in this day and age that is a little strange – but it’s not that far off.  (Analogy: I’ve had flights from DC to Florida with seemingly odd, reverse-path connections in Newark or Cleveland, but they land in roughly the same amount of time as if I connected in Charlotte or Atlanta.) With all of the talk about net neutrality, I’ve alluded to BGP policy and peering and why few seem to even bring that up.  Anyway, that’s another topic…

You don’t really think there is “one Internet” do you?  There never really has been, and there never will be.  That’s the beauty of it.  I assume you are being facetious.

Somewhat off topic, but I can’t stand Comcast’s on-screen caller ID for the phone line you get as part of triple play.  Why on earth would I want that, particularly when so many calls are telemarketers?  Who wants that popping up on the screen while you are watching TV?  (I would assume that those who are hearing impaired already have taken care of that.) I wish the remote had a button to shut it off – does it? – because I don’t really want to make a call to customer service to see if it can be.  Sometimes providers - and software vendors for that matter – think they are giving you a “feature” but really it is a nuisance.

As you note the measurements I made Bob Frankston  –  Dec 21, 2009 8:55 AM PST

As you note the measurements I made were very casual. The main point is that there wasn't that much magic in Fiber as FiOS is now offered. As to that one Internet — of course we do have a maze of twisting winding passages rather a commons but that's a bug not a feature.

Caller-ID — more out of curiosity. The larger issue is why I don't control what's on the screen and instead Verizon or Comcast or some other foreign (AKA, outside my house) party deciding for me.

I wouldn't have expected it Dan Campbell  –  Dec 21, 2009 9:36 AM PST

I wouldn't have expected FiOS to be much faster than Comcast for routine individual transactions.  They are both fast enough to deliver them adequately and without much noticable difference.  It's only when you get into heavy volume or heavy individual transactions like an real video streams (SD and HD, not web video), where you'll start to differentiate.  Maybe.  I'm planning on switching to FiOS from Comcast and hoped to get a short overlap period where I can test side by side as well, but we'll see.

Regarding the Internet, I wouldn't say that was a "bug".  That's the main reason it's worked so well, is so versatile and resilient.  Case in point, on 9/11 I was able to communicate to my girlfriend overseas via chat while my cell phone was essentially useless and even landlines were tough to find dial tone and outbound circuits.  I would agree in the sense that multiple providers in an end-to-end chain limits your overall possibilities; things get dumbed down roughly to the lowest common denominator.  Thus the reason the Internet lacks things like true end-to-end QoS and Multicast, things common (and easy) on corporate networks and without which will basically preclude things like video (SD, HD, whatever) and even VoIP from ever truly living up to or better yet surpassing (in quality) their legacy counterparts.  They may be cheaper and more convenient to deliver over IP, opening up new revenue streams or allowing a provider to play in a new arena, but it's tough for a FIFO multi-provider Internet to beat TDM (or even ATM).  But in terms of resilience, you can't beat it.  Of course, the Internet end-to-end includes much more than circuits, or at least the WWW does, and the location of content and the systems on which it is hosted are rarely controlled by the same service providers that carry the traffic itself.

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