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[4 December: I got a call from Verizon and an answer. For that, skip down to *here.]

We have a new apartment in Manhattan. Washington Heights. Verizon FiOS is here. FiOS trucks roam the streets. They set up little tables in front of apartments where FiOS is now available, to sign customers up. My wife talked to a guy at one of those recently, and he told us Verizon would bring FiOS to any apartment building where a majority of tenants welcomed it, provided the fiber is in the street. Our street has it, but we can’t get through to Verizon by the usual means (website, phone number). Checking with those is a dead end. They say it’s not available. But I want to know for sure, either way. Because I’ll bet I can sell a majority of tenants on going with FiOS. I know FiOS, because I’ve been a customer near Boston since 2007. So can somebody from Verizon please contact me? Either here or through @dsearls. Thanks.

* Had a good talk with a Verizon rep who called me today (4 December). Here’s what she said:

  1. FiOS is not ready on our street yet, but it will be.
  2. When it is, building owners will be notified, both by mail and in person if possible. So alert the building owner to this eventuality, if the owner is not you.
  3. Meanwhile also go on the website and navigate to where you can request service. Even if they say it’s not available now, the request will be remembered when the service actually rolls out.
  4. Right now Verizon has stopped pushing or building out any new services while existing ones are down or damaged due to Sandy. Since there was a lot of damage, and many customers affected, the company’s first priority is restoring that service. This will take awhile. No telling how long yet.
  5. When the Sandy restoration job is complete, the company will go back to expanding services to both new and existing customers.

So I’ll call Time Warner tomorrow. Meanwhile, maybe the information above will help you too.

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So I took up David Weigel‘s challenge in Slate: Read the Reid Plan. Read the Boehner Plan. Get Back to Me… and got as far as this stuff in Reid’s plan:

Reid plan

(Sorry, I had to take a screen shot because the original is a .pdf and the copied text takes too much work to fix.)

So I’m wondering why… let’s see… Pages 46 to 82 — out of a 104-page document — are devoted to this stuff. I really don’t know, although I’m guessing it’s good for Verizon, AT&T and other bidders on that spectrum.

There’s plenty of coverage, of course. Here’s a list, some ranging a bit from the budget fracas, but perhaps illuminating the politics of spectrum, and why it’s in the middle of this thing:

The Boehner plan is utterly opaque to me, at least at this point. But maybe that’s because this spectrum thing stands out so obviously in the Reid plan, and spectrum is a subject I know a few things about. I’m opposed to selling any of it, and think we need to get past spectrum alone as a way to understand radio waves and how they work (especially when we sell off rights to use them… it’s like selling the color blue. I’m also big on open spectrum and unlicensed wireless, but no BigCo wants either, so those aren’t on the table, even though they’re already proven sources of economic benefits. By the way, whatever happened to “the public airwaves”? Remember those?

What do the rest of ya’ll think?

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If you want to get the most out of your Verizon FiOS (fiber to the home) Internet connection, here are your top two tiers:

FiOS tiers

I have the one on the left, and that’s what I’m paying for it. The service is rock-solid and reliable. So is support, as rarely as I’ve needed it.

But when I go to work, my upstream speeds are higher — up to 100 Mbps. I get more done. And I’m not the only techie who appreciates high upstream speeds. Boston is the world’s biggest college town, and full of other industries (pharma, big science, finance) that are staffed by professionals that could use the speed too.

But Verizon does this weird thing with the next tier up: they cut back the upstream speed from 25 Mbps to 20 Mbps. At double the price. WTF is that all about? When I ordered the 25 Mbps tier several months ago, the guy on the phone told me the reason was “just marketing.” He also said “We could give you 100Mbps tomorrow and blow everybody else out of the water.”

So why not?

Oddly, all of FiOS’ “Triple Play” (Internet + TV + phone) bundles here have relatively low Internet speeds, compared to the two tiers above. If the Net is your main interest, you might be better off without the TV and the phone. (In fact, we had the other two “plays” we got FiOS originally, and dumped them later, mostly because  we hardly used them.) If you view more bundles, your best speeds are still just 25/25Mbps.

My request (and advice — and companies do pay me for this stuff) to Verizon is to do two things:

  1. Come up with a sensible offering — one that doesn’t subtract upstream value at twice the price.
  2. Try localizing a bit. Boston isn’t Red Bank. (And no offense to that town or other FiOS service areas.) See what happens when you super-serve a region with an offering that makes sense for it.

Maybe Verizon is doing that, sort of, with its business offerings. But getting to the actual offerings requires many clicks and filling out forms. Where I finally arrived in my latest hunt was a page with this set of choices:

First, this is much better than what I remember about my last look at FiOS business deals.

Second, that 35/35 offering is attractive.

Third, once again, we have an upstream speed drop when you go to the highest tier.

Fourth, the “static” offering is poorly explained. What this means is a real IP address, rather than one dynamically assigned by the router. This is real Internet stuff, so the customer can, say, run a server. (The copy does say “host websites.”) But, unless I’m missing it, nowhere does it say how many IP addresses the customer gets. For customers who care about this stuff, that’s the first question that will come up.

Fifth, the examples are poor. Here are some of the things that serious professional customers might care about:

  1. Offsite storage or backup
  2. Virtual computing in the cloud, such as with Amazon’s EC2
  3. Running servers in a co-lo or some other heavy-lifting environment
  4. Remote rendering, such as RenderCore

Verizon (or any ISP) could offer any of those services locally themselves, taking advantage of low latencies. In fact, in some cases that can be a huge advantage, and therefore a selling point.

Again, the service I’ve had all along with FiOS (going on three years now) has been solid and good — so good, in fact, that I miss it a lot when I’m gone. (Such as with this example here.) I just want it to be better. Hope this helps.

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Some encouraging words here about Verizon’s expected 4G data rates:

After testing in the Boston and Seattle areas, the provider estimates that a real connection on a populated network should average between 5Mbps to 12Mbps in download rates and between 2Mbps to 5Mbps for uploads. Actual, achievable peak speeds in these areas float between 40-50Mbps downstream and 20-25Mbps upstream.The speed is significantly less than the theoretical 100Mbps promised by Long Term Evolution (LTE), the chosen standard, but would still give Verizon one of the fastest cellular networks in North America.

No mention of metering or data caps, of course.

Remember, these are phone companies. They love to meter stuff. Its what they know. They can hardly imagine anything else. They are billing machines with networks attached.

In addition to the metering problems Brett Glass details here, there is the simple question of whether carriers can meter data at all. Data ain’t minutes. And metering discourages both usage and countless businesses other than the phone companies’ own. I have long believed that phone and cable companies will see far more business for themselves if they open up their networks to possibilities other than those optimized for the relocation of television from air to pipes.

Data capping is problematic too. How can the customer tell how close they are to a cap? And how much does fearing overage discourage legitimate uses? And what about the accounting? My own problems with Sprint on this topic don’t give me any confidence that the carriers know how gracefully to impose data usage caps.

There’s a lot of wool in current advertising on these topics too. During the Academy Awards last night, Comcast had a great ad for Xfinity, its new high-speed service, promoted entirely as an entertainment pump. By which I mean that it was an impressive piece of promotion. But there was no mention of upstream speeds (downstream teaser: 100Mb/s). Or other limitations. Or how they might favor NBC (should they buy it) over other content sources. (Which, of course, they will.)

Sprint‘s CEO was in an another ad, promoting the company’s “unlimited text, unlimited Web and unlimited calling…” Right. Says right here in a link-proof pop-up titled “Important 4G coverage and plan information”, that 4G is unlimited, but 3G (what most customers, including I, still have) is limited to “5GB/300MB off-network roaming per month.” They do list “select cities” where 4G is available. Here’s Raleigh. I didn’t find New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston on the list. I recall Amarillo. Can’t find it now, and the navigation irritates me too much to look.

Anyway, I worry that what we’ll get is phone and cable company sausage in Internet casing. And that, on the political side, the carriers will succeed in their campaign to clothe themselves as the “free market” fighting “government takeovers” while working the old regulatory capture game, to keep everybody else from playing.

So five, ten years from now, all the rest of the independent ISPs and WISPs will be gone. So will backbone players other than carriers and Google.  We’ll be gaga about our ability to watch pay-per-view on our fourth-generation iPads with 3-d glasses. And we won’t miss the countless new and improved businesses that never happened because they were essentially outlawed by regulators and their captors.

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When we went looking for an apartment here a couple years ago, we had two primary considerations in addition to the usual ones: walking distance from a Red Line subway stop, and fiber-based Internet access. The latter is easy to spot if you know what to look for, starting with too many wires on the poles. After that you look for large loops among the wires. That means the wiring contains glass, which breaks if the loops are too small. The apartment we chose has other charms, but for me the best one is a choice between three high speed Internet services: Comcast, Verizon FiOS and RCN. Although Comcast comes via coaxial cable, it’s a HFC (hybrid fiber-coax) system, and competes fairly well against fiber all the way to the home. That’s what Verizon FiOS and RCN provide.

fiber

We chose Verizon FiOS, which gives us 20Mb symmetrical service for about $60/month. The 25 feet between the Optical Network Terminal box and my router is ironically provided by old Comcast cable TV co-ax. (Hey, if Comcast wants my business, they can beat Verizon’s offering.)

My point is that we live where we do because there is competition among Internet service providers. While I think competition could be a lot better than it is, each of those three companies still offer far more than what you’ll find pretty much everywhere in the U.S. where there is little or no competition at all.

The playing field in the skies above sidewalks is not pretty. Poles draped with six kinds of wiring (in our case electrical, phone, cable, cable, fiber, fiber — I just counted) are not attractive. At the point the poles become ugly beyond endurance, I expect that the homeowners will pay to bury the services. By the grace of local regulators, all they’ll bury will be electrical service and bundles of conduit, mostly for fiber. And they won’t bury them deep, because fiber isn’t bothered by proximity to electrical currents. In the old days (which is still today in most fiber-less places), minimum separations are required between electrical, cable and phone wiring — the latter two being copper. In Santa Barbara (our perma-home), service trenching has to be the depth of a grave to maintain those separations. There’s no fiber yet offered in Santa Barbara. At our house there the only carrier to provide “high” speed is the cable company, and it’s a fraction of what we get over fiber here near Boston.

All this comes to mind after reading D.C. Court Upholds Ban on MDU Contracts: FCC prevents new exclusive contracts and nullifies existing ones, by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable.  It begins, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Monday upheld an FCC decision banning exclusive contracts between cable companies and the owners of apartments and other multiple-dwelling units (MDU).”

The rest of the piece is framed by the long-standing antipathy between cable and telephone companies (cable lost this one), each as providers of cable TV. For example,

Not surprisingly, Verizon praised the decision. It also saw it as a win for larger issues of access to programming:

“This ruling is a big win for millions of consumers living in apartments and condominiums who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of video competition,” said Michael Glover, Verizon senior VP, deputy general counsel, in a statement. “In upholding the ban on new and existing exclusive access deals, the Court’s decision also confirms the FCC’s authority to address other barriers to more meaningful competitive choice and video competition, such as the cable companies’ refusal to provide competitors with access to regional sports programming.”

Which makes sense at a time in history when TV viewing still comprises a larger wad of demand than Internet use. This will change as more and more production, distribution and consumption moves to the Internet, and as demand increases for more Internet access by more different kinds of devices — especially mobile ones.

Already a growing percentage of my own Internet use, especially on the road, uses cellular connectivity rather than wi-fi (thanks to high charges for crappy connectivity at most hotels). Sprint is my mobile Internet provider. They have my business because they do a better job of getting me what I want: an “air card” that works on Linux and Mac laptops, and not just on Windows ones). Verizon wanted to charge me for my air card (Sprint’s was free with the deal, which was also cheaper), and AT&T’s gear messed up my laptops and didn’t work very well anyway.

In both cases — home and road — there is competition.

While I can think of many reforms I’d like to see around Internet connectivity (among citizens, regulators and regulatees), anything that fosters competition in the meantime is a Good Thing.

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So our Verizon FiOS home bill has been about $160/month. We were looking to chop that down a bit when I called Verizon this morning.

To put it as simply as possible, it’s complicated.

What I care about most is keeping the 20/20Mbps down/up Internet service. That’s $69.99/mo.

What I don’t care about is POTS, or Plain Old Telephone Service. So I canceled that. We use cell phones, and we’ll find another way to fax, as rarely as we do that.

That leaves TV.

What we still call TV isn’t what it used to be: channels on a dial. They are digital program sources that are organized by “channels”, but that’s a legacy convenience. A few are available over the air, as DTV signals. Those are…

  • WGBH-DT (still called Channel 2, actually on Channel 19). It also has an SD (standard definition) version. These are called 2-1 and 2-2, or WGBG-DT1 and WGBH-DT2. Affiliated with PBS.
  • WBZ-DT (still called Channel 4, actually on Channel 30). Affiliated with CBS.
  • WCVB-DT (Still called Channel 5, actually on Channel 20). Affliiated with ABC.
  • WHDH-HD (still called Channel 7, actually on Channel 40). Also called 7-1, It has a second channel on 7-2 called This TV. It’s SD. Affiliated with NBC.
  • WFXT-DT (still called 25, actually on Channel 31). Affiliated with Fox.
  • WSBK-DT (still called 38, actually on Channel 39). Independent. Owned by CBS.
  • WGBX-DT (still called 44, actually on Channel 43). Four SD channels, labeled 44-1 through 44-2. Called WGBX, World, Create and Kids. Affiliated with PBS.
  • WYDN-DT (still called 48, actually on Channel 47) with a directional signal). The picture is SD. Affiliated with Daystar. Evangelical Christian.
  • WLVI-DT (still called 56, actually on Channel 42 with a directional signal). Affiliated with CW.
  • WMFP-DT (still called 62, actually on Channel 18 with a directional signal). Labeled 61-1 and 62-2. The second is currently dark. Affiliated with Gems TV. Home shopping.
  • WBPX (still called 68, actually on Channel 32, with a directional signal). It’s four channels in one, all SD: WBPX Digital Television, Qubo, Eye on Life and Worship. Identified on the tuner as 68-1, 2, 3 and 4. Affiliated with ION Television.

For what it’s worth, I get all those on my laptop with a little adapter. Meaning that I don’t need cable for them. They’re free. They cost $0.00.

Okay, so Verizon offers two channel lineups in our region: Essentials for $47.99/mo. and Extreme HD for… I can’t find it now. $57.99/mo, I think. Essentials has the about same minimun channel line-up I get for free over the air. Extreme HD has what you want if you watch in HD: all the main cable and sports non-premium channels. Add DVR rental (for which one has no choice) for $12.99 and I’m at $140 or so, if I want the Extreme HD.

TV now is an HD deal. If you want TV, you want HD, because that’s the new screen you’ve got, even if you’re watching on a laptop.

The problem is, HDTV costs you. Unless you want the minimal legacy lineup of local over the air channels.

Anyway, here’s what I want: a la carte. Across the board. I’m glad to do Pay Per View for everything.

And right now I’m thinking hard about cancelling the Extreme HD I just ordered. We like the sports and the movies, but we can go to a bar for the former and get the rest from Netflix or something.

Meanwhile, kudos to Verizon for providing fiber, and the 20/20 connection. Here’s another message: I’d gladly pay more for even more speed. Especially upstream.

[Later...] Now I’m looking at the Verizon Massachusetts channel lineup and it seems like the only thing extra I get with Extreme HD is some sports channels. Is that right? Sports-wise, all I care about are NESN, ESPN, TNT and other Usual Suspects.

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