Walt Mossberg

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Personal Technology

Verizon’s Fios Service Moves U.S. Internet Beyond a Snail’s Pace

High-speed Internet connections have finally gone mainstream in the U.S. But there’s a problem: What passes for high speed in this country is pathetically slow compared with Internet service in some other countries.

For instance, Verizon’s entry-level DSL service, at 768 kilobits per second for downloads and 128 kilobits per second for uploads, is considered high-speed here. But in Japan and Korea, families can buy moderately priced Internet service measured in the tens of megabits per second. They get a race car, while Americans are stuck with a bicycle.

A megabit per second (mbps) connection moves about 1,000 times as much data every second as a kilobit per second (kbps) connection. A service running at 10 megabits per second is more than 13 times as fast as Verizon’s base DSL service. All such services have two modes: downstream, for downloading Web pages, email and files; and upstream, for uploading email or files. Generally, Internet providers offer much faster downstream speeds than upstream speeds.

Even the faster common U.S. broadband offerings, like Comcast’s $42.95 a month basic cable-modem service, which delivers 6 mbps downstream and 384 kbps upstream, are ridiculously slow compared with the Asian offerings.

But now, Verizon is offering Americans in certain parts of the country a new, much faster Internet service for only a little more than Comcast charges for its basic service. This new product, called Fios, offers 15 mbps downstream and 2 mbps upstream for $50 a month, or $45 a month if you use Verizon for your telephone service.

There are also two other Fios plans: 5 mbps downstream and 2 mbps upstream for $40 a month; and 30 mbps downstream and 5 mbps upstream for $200 a month. Both also are discounted if you also use Verizon phone service.

I had Fios installed in my house in July, and I’ve been comparing it with Comcast’s basic cable-modem service. I have been pleased with Fios’s speed and reliability, which are true to Verizon’s claims. On some tasks, it is markedly faster than Comcast. And on my laptops connected via a Wi-Fi wireless network, which tends to degrade Internet speeds, the speed increase has been especially noticeable.

This speed boost, however, isn’t the kind of transforming event that people experience when they first move from dial-up to broadband; there’s a limit to the discernible speed increase you can get when downloading Web pages and email — the two most common Internet activities.

So far, Fios is available to fewer than three million homes and business in selected cities and towns in just 15 states, including the Maryland suburb of Washington where I live. Soon, Fios will have competition. Comcast has been working on its own higher-speed solution, and I expect Comcast to match or exceed the Fios downstream speed in these parts of the country where Fios is available in the next few months.

I chose the middle of three Fios plans Verizon offers — 15 mbps downstream and 2 mbps upstream. It took two visits from Verizon crews to install my Fios service — one to lay a fiber-optic cable to my house, and another to install the indoor electronic gear. The service hasn’t been down for even a minute since it was turned on.

I ran a rigorous series of tests comparing Fios with the Comcast basic cable-modem service, using an Internet speed test site accessed from a hard-wired Windows PC. My Fios service repeatedly was measured at just over 15 mbps downstream and around 1.8 mbps upstream. The Comcast service clocked in at a mere 2.3 mbps downstream and around 360 kbps upstream.

Comcast says I should have gotten nearly 6 mbps downstream in my tests, and that my poor test results are likely due to some problem unique to my house. But even if I had gotten, say, 5.5 mbps downstream with Comcast, Fios would have still won hands down.

On my Windows and Mac laptops connected wirelessly via Wi-Fi in distant parts of my home, test speeds jumped from under 1 mbps with Comcast to around 8 mbps with Fios, a huge improvement.

I also did some real-world comparisons. I downloaded a 65.8 megabyte file with Fios in just 42 seconds, compared with nearly seven minutes with Comcast. An uploading test was even more impressive. I uploaded five digital photos, totaling 10.2 megabytes in size, to an online photo service. Fios did this job in just over eight minutes, while Comcast took one hour and 22 minutes.

Streaming video clips from the Internet were much smoother, and suffered fewer hiccups, with Fios than they did with Comcast, especially on my wireless laptops. But Fios wasn’t markedly faster at fetching Web sites, or downloading email without large attachments.

I consider Fios a good service and a good bargain. If you are a heavy Internet user, and you can get it, I recommend you do so. That is especially true if you use the Internet over a wireless network, and stream a lot of videos, or download and upload lots of files. If you are a light user, just surfing the Web and doing email, a slower service will do fine.