Verizon FiOS Versus Comcast
or "How 20 mbps Internet can be slower than 8 mbps"by Philip Greenspun in February 2009
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This is a review of my experience switching from crummy slow Comcast cable modem to blazing fast modern Verizon FiOS fiber optic Internet service. I made the switch in the fall of 2008.
Comcast promised 768 kbps up and 8 Mbits down. That's what they delivered, more or less reliably for several years. It seemed quite fast except when I was uploading 12 MB camera RAW files to a server.
In mid-2008, Comcast was delivering HDTV but only in 720p, i.e., much lower resolution than the 1080p televisions could display.
The only way for a citizen of the Peoples' Republic of Cambridge to get Verizon FiOS is to move to the suburbs, which I did in the fall of 2008. Here's my review of the service.
The 5 mbps of upload speed has been great when transferring hundreds of 12 MB camera RAW files up to a public Web server. The 20 mbps of download speed has occasionally seemed faster than Comcast when downloading big software patches, but most of the time there isn't enough bandwidth or server capacity on the other end to receive a file from, say, a software company in California, at the full 20 mbps.
How does the experience compare to Comcast in day-to-day surfing? Oftentimes, much slower. How can that be? It is measurably 2.5X faster for downloads!
The simple answer is "latency". Bandwidth is the advertised measure of Internet speed, but latency is more important for most consumers. If you click from a Google search results page to view a text page hosted at "www.foobar.com", you're not asking for a mountain of information. The page might contain only 4000 characters of text. At 20 mbps, that should take 1.6 milliseconds to receive. Your computer, however, cannot make a request directly to "www.foobar.com". Communication among computers on the Internet is based on IP address, a 32-bit number, e.g., "22.214.171.124" in the case of www.foobar.com. Your computer needs to talk to a name server in order to get a translation of www.foobar.com, nytimes.com, philip.greenspun.com, or whatever, into a 32-bit number. The name server is run by your ISP. Suppose that the name server takes a few seconds to respond. Your browser might display something in a corner "resolving www.nytimes.com". With Comcast, this is never noticeable because their name servers are very responsive. You'll get your text Web page after a latency of a few milliseconds to resolve "www.foobar.com" into a number and then another few milliseconds to receive the text.
How does Verizon compare? Verizon has a more complex network structure than Comcast. Verizon tells your computer to look for all of its routing and name service from the little box that they provide you. This little box is made by Actiontec and plugs into a coax cable that plugs into the big box that plugs into the fiber optic line itself. The Actiontec router provides the following:
How does the Actiontec perform as a wireless base station? Terribly. Even compared to other 802.11g routers, the range and ability to deliver service through walls is terrible. Users have a lot of trouble connecting and remaining connected, even when within 15' of the unit. You'll have to buy your own base station, preferably 802.11n.
How does the Actiontec perform as a name server? Slowly and sometimes not at all. On its best day, the Actiontec in conjunction with Verizon's actual name servers has higher latency than Comcast. After a few days, however, the Actiontec operating system begins to accumulate sludge and slow down to a crawl. When things aren't working well with FiOS Internet, don't bother calling tech support. Just go over to the Actiontec and power-cycle it.
So.... the time required to fetch a small file from a new server will be slower with FiOS than with Comcast. This is typically what people are doing when surfing the Internet. Even if you believe that you are visiting only one site, e.g., nytimes.com, your browser may have to resolve dozens of hostnames in order to fetch images, advertisements, and content from affiliated servers. Due to the sloppy way that modern HTML designers work, the page may not render at all in your browser until all of the ads have been fetched. The 20 mbps download speed is irrelevant for most users and Comcast's quicker name service may result in an nytimes.com page being rendered in one quarter the time when the Actiontec is having a good day or one tenth the time when the Actiontec is feeling its age.
Most consumers will not be able to plug their TV directly into the coax cable. They will have to rent a set-top box from FiOS and park it in the middle. The set-top box and its interface are extremely complex and difficult to navigate with the provided control. There are literally 1000 channels of television and yet the main interface remains scrolling up and down through channels. An interface that works great when there are 100 items to choose from does not scale gracefully up to 1000.
The digital video recorder works well but has a capacity of only perhaps 10 hours. If you don't finishing watching a show one night, the next evening you'll find it difficult and slow to get back to where you were. On a personal computer you'd drop and drag the mouse to the middle of the "progress bar"; with FiOS you press Fast Forward, watch, and wait several minutes for the progress bar to reach the middle of the program.
Video on demand is cumbersome to navigate. If you stop watching a show halfway through and want to return to it later, you would think that it would be on your "recently viewed" list, but in fact that list is always empty.
As an engineer, it amazes me that television manufacturers and cable TV providers have not been able to eliminate the set-top box. There is some sort of "cable card" option with Verizon FiOS, which lets a consumer plug the TV directly into the coax cable, but many of the features, including the premium channels, are disabled. A modern television has enough computing power to run an airline. Why the consumer should have to uglify his or her home is beyond me.
Watching television now has become so complex that using a personal computer to collect and watch shows might be just as easy. The interface to television via the PC is not that much simpler, but the PC is blessed with a full keyboard and a mouse. Many of my friends in their 20s and 30s have dropped their cable TV subscriptions. "I get every show that I want on Bittorrent". How's the quality? "Most are ripped from HDTV, so it is better than DVD." I'm not exactly sure how they do it, but I don't think figuring it out would be any tougher than mastering the FiOS set-top box and its remote.
The average consumer, however, will probably find that the Web surfing experience on Comcast is faster.
Phil, if the DNS server inside the ActionTec is not very responsive, you may wish to try using e.g. OpenDNS.com's DNS, or even find a friend with a Unix/Linux server on the Intnernet to set up a caching nameserver that you can use.
-- Patrick Giagnocavo, February 3, 2009
You can manage your Verizon phone line through a web browser now. I had to enable some sort of new "connect" package option, and now I can see my last 100 calls with caller ID, and the four messages sitting unlistened to on my phone, all in firefox after logging into my verzion.com account.
-- Matthew Haughey, February 3, 2009
I have FiOS in the Seattle area, and I'm not seeing any of the problems that you're seeing. I have ~7 ms ping times to servers in Seattle, so the link itself has very low latency. What kind of ping times do you see to 126.96.36.199? That should be in Boston and well-connected. If you see > 20ms, then your router is probably flaky, otherwise it's probably DNS. Just swap your default DNS server for something else, or run your own caching DNS server, if you have a spare box sitting around.
I would *not* recommend OpenDNS--they scare me. They've been known to return their *own* addresses to DNS queries for search engines, and then proxy all of your searches through their own servers, presumably logging all of your searches. Who knows what else they're doing behind the scenes.
-- Scott Laird, February 3, 2009
Comcast's performance varies across markets. I consistently get 20+ Mbps down, 7+ Mbps up. This is not speedboost, I pay $10 extra to move up to their faster tier.
Outages are measured in minutes per year. At the same time, I know plenty of people elsewhere with horrible Comcast performance and many outages throughout the year. If Comcast could just address this consistency they would not feel the pain from FIOS.
As for FIOS, their problem here (Fairfax County, Virginia) is that they are so big that ineptitude doesn't cost them money on the long run. During 2008 I attempted to have FIOS installed five times (I wanted their symmetrical 20Mbps tier) but they managed to screw up the ordering process each and every time. Worse, this building has been wired for FIOS for almost two years, we were one of the very first areas here to get the wiring done. Verizon is so big here that they can afford to screw up these orders daily and still make a profit.
-- Pedro Vera-Perez, February 3, 2009
1) Comcast delivers all their HD channels in the format provided by the content provider, just like FIOS. If the source material is in 720p (such as Fox TV), both FIOS and Comcast provide it to you as 720p. If the source material is 1080i (like NBC TV), you get it as 1080i regardless.
This being said, it is possible for your provider to lower the bitrate of the program stream. The satellite providers must do this due to their very limited bandwidth. Comcast I believe does as well, while FIOS does not. This does not affect the resolution, but instead can add compression artifacts.
2) CableCard is an option for both FIOS and Comcast. Every programming provider is mandated by law  to provide the option to not rent the set top box (STB), but rather purchase your own equipment, and the CableCard standard is what the industry came up with to satisfy that requirement.
Use of a CableCard absolutely does allow you to get premium channels. The problem with it is the lack of two-way communication in the standard, so you cannot get the 'OnDemand' service (or whatever the FIOS equivalent is.)
 Telecommunications Act of 1996
-- Jim Stanton, February 3, 2009
As for CableCard, it does allow you to get the premium channels, it's the Video on Demand that you won't be able to get without using their set top box.
There is also limited selection on TVs that have card slots.
-- Aaron Robinson, February 3, 2009
Also, re: the DNS problems, I've always had luck using the public nameserver at Boston University (ns.bu.edu / 188.8.131.52). No OpenDNS shenanigans, just real DNS.
-- Jim Stanton, February 3, 2009
'Where does Verizon deliver this? Only in cities where it can get permission to offer the entire bundle of services. Cable television is the most profitable service and the toughest one to get approved. The local cable monopoly tends to own local politicians and when Verizon comes knocking and asks to launch its TV service, those politicians often say "We don't think competition would be good for our constituents."'
At least some of the local politicians are in the pockets of consumers who don't want Verizon to have any more monopoly than they already do until they learn to fix phone lines.
If you need a service call from Verizon, they ask you to tell them 3 or 4 4-hour periods when you'll be home, then they don't show up for any of them, and when they finally do show up at some randomly chosen time, they don't have access to the phone closet they need to fix your problem.
There do seem to be people in other parts of the world who need to think about it if you tell them, "I was under Verizon house-arrest that week." In Cambridge, it's a universally understood idiom.
I don't like Comcast's internet providing policies, or their pricing policies for cable TV, but their service works and when it doesn't they fix it. This isn't true of either phone or DSL from Verizon in Cambridge. It's likely that FIOS would work a little better for a few years, but any company that doesn't know how to schedule a service call or keep track of where their equipment is located shouldn't be given a monopoly.
-- Laura Conrad, February 3, 2009
I think the value of FiOS vs Comcast depends on the technical savvy of the customer. If you know how, you can put your own wireless router after the Actiontec (and disable wireless on it), get your DNS elsewhere and otherwise tweak things so that FiOS does better. If not, then Comcast provides a better out-of-the-box customer experience.
Similar considerations apply to FiOS TV. From what I can tell both the Comcast-provided and Verizon-provided DVRs are poor quality. If you want a TiVo (like I do), with Comcast you can either rent a lower-quality TiVo monthly or hook up your own with Cablecards (and it works once you beat them into giving you the cards). With FiOS you can also use a TiVo (though they don't have a TiVo rental option), but you'll likely have to worry about RF attenuators if you want to prevent intermittent glitches on some of your channels... Once you fix that, the FiOS picture quality is better (since they don't reduce the bitrate of their feeds), but until you do... things suck.
-- Ravi Nanavati, February 3, 2009
1. You don't have to use the Actiontec router. Any router will work. I learned this from Verizon when my Actiontec broke while out of warranty. Now I use an Apple Airport Extreme with 802.11n wireless networking. You might have to call Verizon tech support and ask them to "break the DHCP lease" when you change routers or wait long enough for that to happen automatically. Note: I only have FiOS Internet, not TV. Maybe for TV the Actiontec is required?
2. In my town (Millis), the politicians have been bought for $5/month. Comcast pays the town $5 per subscriber per month which amounts to about a quarter million dollars per year. The town uses this for their community access channels, which are usually a big waste of time. They consume three channels and mostly just display text about upcoming town events (animated so as to be extra annoying, swirling and rotating into frame and doing a much worse job of displaying information than a web page would). They also televise various town meetings, which is a useful function, but I'd rather see them put those on YouTube than impose a $250,000 annual tax on the town residents. Anyway, Verizon has not been willing to pay the $5 per subscriber per year bribe and so the town refuses to let them provide TV. The fiber optic cable is already connected to my house and provides Internet service for me but Verizon is forbidden to offer me TV until they agree to pay the bribe to the town, which so far they won't.
-- Dan Winkler, February 3, 2009
Some cable systems such as Cox Fairfax use Switched Digital Video (SDV) to carry multiple channels on a single band. Using solely a cable card does not allow the reception of the switched channels. So it is not merely On Demand services that are impacted when attempting to ditch the less than aesthetically pleasing cable box, channels that are supposed to be part of a standard package become inaccessible. Cox Fairfax has been fined by the FCC for this practice, however they are not relenting in their use of SDV.
I cannot speak to the quality of Fios as it is not installed in my neighborhood in spite of Verizon imploring me each week with glossy adverts to make the switch. I guess whatever subcontractor does Verizon's direct mail marketing either doesn't know or doesn't care that it is unavailable at my residence.
-- Stella Aquilina, February 3, 2009
720p vs. 1080i My understanding is that it's by no means certain that 1080i provides better quality than 720p. 1080p is superior to both of them.
FIOS and Politics In my town, Verizon offers FIOS internet and phone, but evidently can't be bothered to offer TV service.
-- Jim Ancona, February 3, 2009
@Stella--Fios marketing isn't screwing up at all. They are indirectly pressuring you to pressure the gatekeepers in your town to let them in.
-- michael costello, February 4, 2009
I'll second or third or fourth the previous comments about replacing the ActionTec which is FiOS's Achilles Heel. I use a SonicWall firewall / router appliance that provides reasonably trustworthy security (including virus scanning), WiFi, DHCP, etc. The ActionTec is then behind the Sonicwall just for the set top boxes, on an isolated segment from other network traffic.
The main reason to drop the ActionTec is security, not speed. I spent a bunch of time turning off ports and disabling Wifi, yet the SSID was still broadcast. A quick view of the Sonicwall logs will quickly tell you how frequently these home routers are interrogated by unwanted parties - like hourly if not more frequently.
Verizon's customer service is way better than my experiences with Comcast. You can call at 5am and actually get a human who knows something about DNS.
-- David Wihl, February 4, 2009
On the post about using another router- Yes, you can use another wireless router other than the ActionTec. I use a WRT54G and it works great. If you have TV, though, you'll have to ask them to bring out a NIM (I think that stands for network interface module) that plugs into the cable and the router which will provide a link for communication with the set top box. Otherwise the two-way features will not work and the program guide will not work. They switched me to an ActionTec after I was originally on the NIM/Linksys combo and it was so bad I forced them to bring an old NIM out to switch me back.
-- Jim G, February 4, 2009
I'm a little concerned about the apples to oranges nature of this review and from some of the commenters. I live in Needham where I had Comcast Internet service for many years and then replaced it with FIOS in the fall of 2007. Same house, same wiring, same wifi issues, same town etc etc. In my experience, FIOS has been a far superior Internet provider than Comcast.
In my case, the gain in upload speed was considerable and I'm not doing anything too unusual (I backup most data to Mozy nightly and also use ZenFolio for photo backup). And downloads of anything substantial -- TV shows from iTunes or Amazon Unbox, for example -- are noticeably quicker. I have not experienced any problems with latency when web surfing, either. Viewing streaming video is clearly better with fewer freezes and delays under FIOS than it was with Comcast. The Actiontec wifi router replaced a Linksys wifi router and has slightly better range inside our old brick house. Plenty of dead spots either way.
In the year and half or so since the Actiontec was installed, we have had to reboot it a handful of times when network traffic in the house got wonky. But a quick flip off and on always fixed the problem. I'm sorry that some people aren't getting such significant improvements, but here in Needham, FIOS has been a revelation.
-- Aaron Pressman, February 4, 2009
I consistently get 25-30Mbps down and 7-10 Mbps up with Comcast and my own DOCSIS 2.0 compliant cable modem (Motorola Surfboard SB5101). It's better to buy your own cable modem as I've heard the one Comcast supplies or sells you isn't as fast.
I'm quite happy with Comcast with regards to the speed. Removing splitters in your cable line can help with speeds as I understand it, just a tip.
I'm not saying I like Comcast as a company at all but they are the only option in my area for this high of a speed. Verizon FiOS is not here yet and DSL is slower.
I do not have an opinion on the TV service as I only use Comcast for internet. I get all my HDTV over the air, which works well for me.
-- photo tristan, February 6, 2009
Nice job in researching all of this. In regards to a couple of things about what Verizon does. First of all the reason that there dvr cannot hold as much as Comcast is because Verizon does not compress any of their video and by doing this it takes up more space on the recorder (similar to the way Comcast t.v. works. The reason that they cannot offer as many hd channels as Verizon is because they do not have enough space on their system to accomadate the hd channels. In regards to the leasing of the box Comcast does the same thing and now they are charging per month for their N-Router and G-router, Verizon does not charge for the router. In regards to the fact that Verizon does not go right to the back of the t.v. with the fiber is because of the fact that they do not own any of the cables in the home. The great part about this is the fact that Coax will not lose any resolution or speed for up to about 500 feet. THis is the reason that cable is now telling everybody that they use fiber and they have used it for years. The problem with that is at some point along the way they are losing some of that speed and resolution because they are down the street, with their fiber. One last thing is that you are right depending on the need maybe the speed is not that important RIGHT NOW. But wait for the future when a lot of the things out there catch up to fios, what is the cable company going to do (DOCSIS 3.0) THen what 4.0 then 5.0
-- dan jenkins, September 8, 2009
this is just a response to the last comment i read on the page here...
asking what they think comcast is going to do about speed, and i read an article by a comcast CO today that talked about plans on limiting bandwidth and charging according to bandwidth, like the wireless providers do. only thing, is this particular article was dated 2007, but thought it was interesting.
also, i use verizon wireless 3G, that DOES limit bandwidth and charge if you go over. and from what i understand, they do that in order to lesson the use and increase speed.
-- eileen brinker, January 12, 2010
Interesting debate. I recently switched from DSL (average 750K up and 3MB down) to Comcast (average 2MB up and 6MB down) according to speedtest and others. It seems like an easy choice. 6 months later, I can easily say I wished I hadn't switched. It takes me longer to navigate the web, which is what I do. Comcast gets almost unusable at 6PM, the DSL never had any time impact. Sure I upload 10 megs every once in a while, and with Comcast it takes 15 seconds instead of 45, but that pales in comparison to all of the time I spend just waiting. I have a theory that speedtests don't matter if you have to wait to get to the server. I think Comcast may even parse speedtest type urls so that thier customers connect quickly. Latency on both of these ISP's avereges around 65MS, which seems slow, but the real data seems to be missing. How long does it take me to research a product and market segment using Google. My DSL was faster. I'm not sure why.
-- Paul Risberg, March 30, 2010