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VZ vs. RCN


We made the switch from RCN to Verizon FiOS for our connection needs a few weeks ago, after getting fed up with RCN's prices. RCN used to be a good deal for us (especially in here Arlington, where they compete with Comcast and don't have an exclusive license), but over the years the prices have inched up and up. Also, O wanted some channels (like ESPN U, which carries college hockey) that RCN doesn't seem to carry. Verizon is making it pretty attractive to switch right now as well, and if you live in eligible area, installation is very fast.

So now we're getting phone service from what used to be The Phone Company ! This is progress ! (And our mobile phone service is taken care of by another spawn of The Phone Company. But I digress.)

The big deal about Verizon FiOS is that it delivers fiber optic cable to the home. Now, RCN says the same thing, but I think what RCN actually delivers in most places is fiber to the street – then there's a box on the utility pole that turns fiber into coaxial cable, which then is connected to your TV or cable modem. (This might vary depending on when RCN did the installation.) The speeds and latencies of FiOS compared to RCN's way of doing things don't seem to be much different, but as a company with newer infrastructure, Verizon offers more TV channels, apparently full-quality high-definition channels (unlike, notoriously, DirecTV), and will probably promise more net bandwidth in the future. We chose the 20 Mb/s download-5 Mb/s upload service level, which is only marginally more expensive than the base 5/2 service. Is it really that fast ? I haven't seen anything more than 12 Mb/s on the download side so far, but I have noticed the upload improvement when I post photos to flickr. Speeds like this also make backing up your files somewhere else more practical.

Installation involves a bit of hardware. A technician needs to install a box called an ONT (Optical Network Terminal), which in turn needs a battery backup. The ONT has connections for coax and good old copper wire phone connections. Like a modern broadband cable installation, the coax handles both data and TV. On our basement wall, we now have three boxes with the Verizon logo and a nicely mounted power strip. So at our house, the fiber optic cable goes in, gets sent back outside the house using the existing coax cables and splitters.

One of those coax cables goes back into the underground lair, where it's connected to the Verizon Internet router. For all I know, it's mostly a cable modem and wireless router (with the usual controls for firewalls, port forwarding, DMZ, DHCP, etc.). The wireless part of the router, apparently of the 802.11g standard, is configured to use a network name with a generated ID, and WPA (i.e., an infernally long passcode is required for access) as is. I suppose you could turn off the wireless part and installed your own access point (like an 802.11n Apple Airport Extreme), but you still need to run their router. For one thing, if you peek into the router client list, you'll see that the TV set-top boxes are listed there. While the video data is probably not pushed using packet network protocols, the boxes probably need to maintain contact with the Verizon Central Scrutinizer or they stop working.

So, how does it stack up ?

Phone

Well, it's phone service. We got caller ID and home voice mail with RCN and Verizon too. We've got one of those phones which blinks when you have messages with this kind of service, and it works with Verizon as well as RCN.

I used a web order form to set up initial installation, and either I didn't see an option for phone service, or it didn't exist, so we didn't have it installed until yesterday, about ten days after the initial appointment. (Note: we do not want an IP phone service until the whole E-911 thing is worked out – we have kids, so this matters. Plus VoIP can still, ahem, perform suboptimally.)

One annoyance: with RCN, you can check your voice mail by dialing *9 and your passcode. With Verizon, you have to find out the local access number and dial that.

Internet

RCN was pretty reliable; I think I had to recycle the connection once in the last year. FiOS has a reliable reputation but I hope fixing problems is just as easy. The Verizon router can talk to dyndns.org, so if you use that, no problem. BitTorrent seems to work just fine, but you did not hear that from me.

TV

Ahh, the tube, the cause of and solution to all of life's problems. Video quality on standard definition channels is noticeably better than RCN on some channels; audio quality seems to better too. Some music channels look very blocky on both services when there's significant movement; I guess the feeds just aren't that good. High definition looks great, but NESN gets a little blocky with fast action; apparently it's not Verizon's fault – sports on Fox, ESPN, etc. look great all the time. ESPN's in-studio shows are hyperdetailed/active in HD and should not be viewed for more than a few minutes at a time.

The standard and HD set-top boxes are from Motorola and feature a non-ugly interface. (RCN did a recent update which was OK but was buggy for us for weeks.) Switching channels is really fast. We did not go with a DVR (recorder) because they have a bad reputation at the moment, from what I could glean online. Annoyance: all listed channels are enabled at first; to disable most, you need to browse the ENTIRE LIST the first time. The HD box has HDMI, component, and even standard (RCA or S-) video outs, along with digital audio out (both optical and coax). It works fine with our HDTV; the optical out tends to deliver sound in either Dolby Pro-Logic II Cinema or 5.1 depending on what's playing. As mandated by the FCC, it has FireWire outputs for the video data, but I haven't seen what they can do yet.

The standard definition box has a digital audio output, which is often missing even when an illustration for it appears in the user's manual. That way, you can get theatre sound even with a normal TV, as long as you have a surround-sound setup.

Content comments:
  • There's a lot of free on-demand, especially music videos. I like the IMF music channel, which has lots of artists from all over the world, so if you're tired of US and UK pap, you can experience German and Hindi pap.
  • There are channels I never knew existed, such as:
    • CNBC-World
    • CSPAN-3
    • GOL-TV
    • The Pentagon Channel
    • CNN Internacional Para los Wombats (en Español)
    OK, I made up one of those.

  • High-definition still has limits when it comes to fast motion, so the very best detail shines when it comes to art and near-still-life – there's a show on Discovery HD Theater called Sunrise Earth which slowly explores a landscape as the sun comes up. Wonderful.


Service

Verizon assistance by phone is remarkably chipper, or maybe I've just hit them on good days. The automated menus for FiOS installation are creepily natural-sounding, but you're back to the usual maze of options when dealing with phone service.

Our standard-definition set-top box was having problems pretty much from the second day we got it (tiling, sound and picture blinking out occasionally). That was strange because you'd think the HD box would be more sensitive to video signal problems and it's been perfect in contrast. Verizon likes to try to solve these problems remotely at first, but resetting the box and reloading its software didn't help.

I tried to combine fixing that box with our phone installation that happened yesterday. When the VZ guy came to do the phone, he couldn't help me with the box because it needed replacing and he didn't have one. But he contacted another guy out in the field who could help me, and he showed up with a replacement about half an hour later. Nice !

Value

One of the reasons we switched was to spend less on all this stuff. With RCN, we had HBO and Cinemax. For Verizon, we said goodbye to those channels and just got the Movies And Sports bundle so that O could get college hockey on ESPN-U (and maybe the Fox collegiate channels); most of the movie channels are from Showtime. For some reason, the only way to get Sundance and IFC is to get a Movies bundle. If you have an HD box, you get all the HD versions of the things you're already paying for. If you want to see Alton Brown's face in extremely detailed fish-eye-lens close-ups, you're going to love it.

Verizon has some good introductory deals right now that are very attractive. One of the annoying things about RCN was that they were changing their packages all the time, and it was hard to figure out how they compared to what you currently had before. So when the RCN customer service person called me up after I ordered my phone service to be switched, and I complained about the constant prices increases, he asked why I didn't switch to one of the newer bundled package of services.

Well, gee, I'd think RCN would know their own product line better than me. If they wanted to me to use a new package, why not just automatically change mine to ones with the more features and less cost when they came up ? But of course, they don't mind it when people pay more than they have to because, hey, it's more money for them, right ? Other companies don't keep around plans or pricing that is not good for the customer when something better is available: Netflix, for example, has let us keep better deals, and I think even some mobile phone companies (perhaps the lowest form of subscription service providers in business) will downgrade your plan for a month if a lower-cost plan would have delivered the same amount of service. So there. Let's just see if Verizon is any better about this…

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