Beyond Cable. Beyond DSL.
Fiber-Optic Lines Offer Connection Speeds Up to 50 Times Faster Than Traditional Services. Here's What Early Users Have to Say.
For most jobs, technology consultant Joel Patterson can use his office network without any trouble. But for big files, when speed really matters, he heads for home.
Mr. Patterson's house, in the Dallas suburb of Lucas, Texas, is connected with high-capacity, high-speed optical fiber from Verizon Communications Inc. Thanks to fiber, his connection to the Internet is roughly 20 times faster than at work.
"In my business, a software upgrade might be a multigigabyte file, and if I stay at work on email, it might take me all day to get something downloaded," Mr. Patterson says. "At home it takes an hour or two."
Mr. Patterson is part of a small but growing club of phone-company customers who have abandoned their cable and digital-subscriber-line online services in favor of higher-capacity fiber-optic lines. Optical fiber can deliver connection speeds that are more than 50 times faster than DSL and cable links. Phone companies are counting on fiber to serve as the pipeline for an array of new services, from online games that allow more players and have even richer graphics than anything currently on the market, to television with more interactive features.
Leading phone companies are spending billions of dollars to upgrade their old copper networks with glass-based fiber. The companies say fiber not only will give them the capacity to deliver new services but also will be more resistant to outages caused by weather and corrosion, and easier to repair when outages occur.
Verizon is leading the charge, with a project expected to eventually cost more than $20 billion. The New York-based telecommunications giant is deploying the hair-thin fiber directly to customers' homes, which makes possible the speediest Internet connections so far available in the U.S. on a wide scale.
Other phone companies, including AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp., aren't yet offering fiber service. When they do, they will stop short of customers' homes, stringing fiber to local equipment centers or neighborhood boxes that are connected to homes by the traditional copper phone wires. That will enable speeds that are faster than those of cable or DSL connections but in many cases slower than those possible with Verizon's service, called FIOS.
So far, fiber-optic connections are available only in a few select areas, because laying a whole new network is labor-intensive and expensive. Verizon's fiber lines pass by more than three million homes in Texas, Florida, suburban Washington, D.C., and other areas in its Northeastern territory. It expects to make service available to another three million households by the end of this year.
Verizon says that as high-capacity services become increasingly popular it will eventually tweak its fiber-optic technology to carry as much as 100 megabits of data per second, enough to download an entire movie in seconds. For now, speeds range from five megabits per second to 50 megabits per second in select markets. Popular DSL plans from most phone companies offer connections at 1.5 megabits per second, while cable connections are often somewhat faster than that.
The Verizon service generally is more expensive than typical DSL and cable broadband plans. Verizon's fiber prices in most places run from $35 a month for a connection at five megabits per second to $159.99 a month for 50 megabits per second. (In New York and other areas where competition is fiercest, the top-speed service is as low as $89.95 a month.) By comparison, AT&T charges about $28 a month for its fastest DSL service, which operates at six megabits a second.
With the faster networks, the phone companies can roll out services they hadn't been able to offer before, including television programming, online games and Internet phone services. In the near future, fiber will also facilitate the offering of new devices and services, such as so-called dual-network phones that run on a cellular network outdoors and automatically switch to a home phone network when the user enters the home. The idea is to save users cellphone minutes without forcing them to switch phones.
Already, Verizon is offering the silver Verizon One home phone, which comes with a color touch screen and an Internet connection, displaying up-to-date news, sports, weather and stock listings. Customers also can display photos and videos on the device. The phone will work with any Internet connection, but its features are far more fluid with a fiber line.
Verizon's fiber rollout has hit a few snags. Because installing the new lines requires crews to dig under lawns to install the network in some areas, Verizon aims to return the lawns to their original condition. This has meant the company has to reseed and relandscape lawns, a process that can prompt repeated trips back to homes when the grass isn't growing properly.
Customers also report a few kinks in the installation of the new connections, which can take more than four hours for technicians to set up as they sometimes must thread fiber through walls and attics.
'It's Pretty Cool'
Still, Internet technology forums are filled with fiber users such as Mr. Patterson who rave about the speedy Internet service. "It just blows me away," Mr. Patterson says. "Even typical music and videos, you know how it takes a few minutes to download? Well, I can download a song in about 10 seconds. It's pretty cool."
One of the earliest adopters of the technology is the medical profession, which is using fiber lines for fast, remote access to patient information.
Craig Sable, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recently had Verizon's fiber connection installed in his home as part of the hospital's telemedicine program. Under the program, the hospital is paying to run fiber connections for Dr. Sable and a couple of other doctors.
For Dr. Sable, fiber allows him to quickly transmit and receive patient X-rays and videos of heart ultrasounds, which are large files that would take far longer to download over DSL or cable Internet connections at home. The immediate access to the records at home helps him diagnose problems more quickly, at any time of day, than if he had to leave home and travel to the hospital to view them.
"In both the radiology and cardiology world, we are frequently asked to look at different types of digital patient studies at all hours of the day and night," Dr. Sable says. "The FIOS system allows us to expand to better 24/7 coverage."
Administrators say they plan to keep tabs on how Dr. Sable and others are using their fiber connections and may link up more doctors' homes if all goes well. The hospital hopes to soon begin using fiber lines for video conferencing for doctors at home.
Its fiber network also is enabling Verizon to begin competing with cable companies to deliver television programming. Verizon offers more than 400 channels in many areas, with 20 of them in high definition, but the channel lineup is roughly the same as cable.
Verizon's onscreen guide has a simple, clean look to it and allows users to search for shows by title, actor or topic. And unlike on some cable systems, users can search for shows up to two weeks into the future. Verizon also offers two sizes of guides, so users can choose how much of the show that they're watching appears in the background.
Also, video-on-demand movies (Verizon has about 2,500 of them) take just three seconds or so to download; most cable services take a few seconds longer, though systems vary.
Customers rave about the clear, bright picture on Verizon's service, which they say is better and more consistent than cable or satellite. But some say it's prone to occasional pixilation -- when the picture morphs into digital blocks -- for a second or two. Many say it's more reliable than cable TV, which they say sometimes experiences interference during storms. Because the fiber is waterproof, Verizon says its service holds up better in bad weather.
Verizon says TV customers in the coming months can look forward to a digital video recorder that will allow them to watch recorded shows on TVs throughout the home, not just on the TV that is physically attached to the DVR.
beyond cable,beyond dsl
Published: July 24, 2006, 4:22 pm