Well, not personally. But my home broadband connection is being monitored by the FCC. Not to worry, I volunteered for this.
Nearly a year ago I read an FCC press release about the agency wanting to monitor a sampling of broadband subscribers across the nation to get a detailed idea of how well service measured up to provider promises. On a lark, I signed up.
My house is like an archeological tel of internet access. The old dial-up line is still snaked along a baseboard to a socket near where one of the main computers sits. The original Dell 486 has been replaced by successive Macs, but old disks, even a floppy or two, still inhabit shelves. We’ve had two successive DSL providers over the years, before signing up last fall for Verizon FIOS.
Anyhow, months went by after I sent my information to the FCC. Then I was contacted by an outfit called SamKnows. That’s the FCC’s contractor for this project. (Isn’t that funny? Uncle Sam asking SamKnows for help.) They told me I’d made it through initial screening. Another information request, another couple of months, and now I was a finalist. I think there was another round of online information requested before the FCC informed me, via SamKnows, that I’d been chosen as a sampling site. Woooweee!
A month after that, a brand new NetGear 802.11n wireless router arrived via UPS. I didn’t quite get around to installing it immediately. But SamKnows kept noodging me with reminder e-mails. Last night I finally installed it.
SamKnows provided excellent instructions. It knew all about my Verizon-provided router. Unlike most commodity units, it has a coaxial cable input. So it was necessary to daisy chain the FCC-provided router to the Verizon router with a Cat-5 cable. The wired stage configured itself. But I had to log onto the Verizon router (SamKnows mysteriously knew its URL) to disable the wireless stage. All of the WiFi devices in the house — four notebook computers, two iPhones and an iPad — had to be remapped to the Netzero.
All in all, everything went perfectly. A couple of hours later, I received a confirmation email from SamKnows, reassuring me it had detected what they call the white-box router.
My wife wanted to know, what else is that thing monitoring? And how long would we have it sitting there on her desk?
I hope and presume SamKnows knows only my FIOS performance. Earlier communications from SamKnows had directed me to a broadband test site. That test indicated I am getting the upload and download speeds Verizon promises. Whether my (boring) web viewing habits or e-mails are being sniffed and sent to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, I have no idea. Nor do I know how long they’ll be watching.
It occurs to me that in my broadcast life on Federal News Radio in Washington, I am subject to monitoring by the FCC. So I’d say Genachowski owes me a beer.
My nephew got up at 2 a.m. to order his. My wife ordered hers at 1:30 p.m. and had no trouble. She really needs a new phone, having put up uncomplainingly with some sort of flip-open LG that might be the worst device ever made.
I took a deep breath, and tried ordering mine at 5:45 p.m. But first I had to register my account. After that, I didn’t get far. By then, of course, the site was overwhelmed with traffic and simply delivered error messages. I started repeating to myself what I always tease my daughter when she complains if eat all the Gummy Worms. “There’s a factory somewhere that, at this moment, is churning out tons of Gummy Worms. This is not a limited commodity. They are making more RIGHT NOW!”
I image the factory floor in China where they make iPhones. “Comrades! No weekend leave! Everybody on triple shift! Verizon has the iPhone!”
So what’s the rush?
Egypt is crumbling into chaos, in large measure because most people stand in line for a loaf of bread they can barely afford. But today, the first of an expected 14 million Americans will line up for a toy that would buy enough bread for Pharaoh’s banquet.
Now I’m thinking, what do I really need with an iPhone? I’m just getting to the point where I only mildly hate my BlackBerry with its crappy software and non-existent support. I no longer fantasize about smashing it on the driveway with my sledgehammer. That’s good enough for now.
At the test in Starbucks, the Verizon 4G wireless modem tested just great on reasonably up-to-date compters. Verizon rolled out is fourth generation wireless broadband service to some 40 locations last month. Speed test pages downloaded way faster than with a 3G cellular modem.
But, I wondered, would 4G show any difference on a sort of crappy old PC? About a year ago I bought a refurbished ThinkPad with a 40G hard disk and I-don’t-know what processor. And, of course, Windows XP. This one is old enough that it’s an IBM, not a Lenovo. I keep it around as a computer-of-last-resort if the other assorted machines around the house fail. Safari is the machine’s only saving grace. I simply can’t tolerate the crawling pace of Internet Explorer.
The VZ Access software supplied by Verizon installed with no problem. And it found the modem just fine. You never know with old PCs. The 4G modem is supplied by LG. It plugs into a USB port. With a somewhat ungainly design, it’s better to use the supplied USB extension cord.
The 4G reception inside of my house was adequate (the Washington, D.C. area is one of Verizon’s initial locations). Two of four bars lit up.
But, what do you know, web pages downloaded with surprising crispness, obviously faster than the 802.11n WiFi that is running in my house. The Thinkpad’s WiFi card is only 802.11g anyhow. More surprising, pages loaded seemingly as fast as a wired Ethernet connection to my FIOS service. A test at bandwithplace.com showed the reality of 8.81 megabits per second download and 2 megabits per second upload. Not wire speed, but an order of magnitude faster than 3G wireless.
So in my estimation, the investment in a 4G broadband data plan is worth it even on a relatively slow machine.
The battle of the wireless coverage maps is about to go up a notch. Verizon Sunday night switched on its long term evolution (LTE) wireless 4G service. The company is promising 7 megabits to 12 megabits per second downlinks and 3 megabits to 5 megabits uploads — that is, up to 10 times faster than its 3G network. Those are roughly the speeds promised by Sprint, which until now has had the 4G broadband wirelesss market to itself in the U.S. Verizon’s service will be available in 38 cities and 60 airports initially, including the Washington D.C. area and its three major airports.
Bernie McGonagle, Verizon Wireless’s associate director of federal government data solutions, said the service should be available on the GSA Networx contract and other vehicles shortly, but that it had to be up and running before the company could add 4G to existing purchasing vehicles.
The service is available via two USB modems. McGonagle said Verizon will offer 4G smart phones by mid-2011.
For the technically-minded, the services uses frequency division multiplexing, a way of using bandwidth efficiently that’s analogous to wave division multiplexing in optical networks. McGonagle said use of multiple input-multiple output antennas both at the tower and device ends helps maintain signal continuity at long distances from the nearest tower and faster throughput at closer distances. Verizon’s implementation will use a 2 x 2 antenna setup initially. He added that lower latency in 4G transmissions will noticeably improve the display of video and audio content on portable devices.
McGonagle said Verizon is also adding megabit Ethernet to its towers so the terrestrial backbone itself will be less of a bottleneck. Plus, a set of services called IP multimedia subsystem is maintains sessions as locations and transport protocols change.
Verizon’s 4G service will also use the 700 MHz spectrum formerly used for television broadcasting. The company obtained the spectrum, known as Upper C Block, in an FCC auction in 2008. Google had entered the fray, using its clout to have open access rules attached to the sale, but it is unclear at this point how that will translate into services to users.
For now, both modems available from Verizon — one a Pantech and one an LG — receive both 4G and 3G network data. They will be priced at $99 retail. Plans are not cheap, at $50 per month for a 5 gigabyte limit and $80 for 10 gigabytes, and $10 per gigabyte it you exceed your plan.
Broadband arrived at my house a good 10 years ago as digital subscriber line (DSL) service from DirectTV. The satellite company sold its DSL service, and we were flipped to Verizon. (I know, I was using Verizon lines the whole time.) My house — and I have an extensive home office that would be the envy of the most enthusiastic teleworker — is about 2.5 miles as the crow flies from a Verizon building. Plus, it is about 35 years old, so the copper wiring is aging. DSL never seemed all that fast, although it beat dial-up. And with both companies, the service was good.
Now we’ve have switched to FIOS. We got it for telephone and internet, because we’re satisfied with Dish Networks for satellite TV and we didn’t feel like starting all over. We went to satellite because cable service was horrible.
For what seems like more than a year, my neighborhood had gone through the stages of FIOS. Six months of little flags planted all over the place. Then noisy and messy trenching, with some unlucky neighbors getting big junction boxes, the size of fish tanks, buried in their lawns with green lids showing. Then grass repair complete with salt hay all over the place. Then the sales calls door-to-door.
At the same time, I signed up with the Federal Communications Commission to see if I could become one of the locations they survey to see how broad broadband really is nationwide. It’s called TestMyISP and FCC is using an outfit called SamKnows to conduct the experiment. I’m not so sure about FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s net neutrality dreams, but I do agree with J.G. that a clear picture of the state of broadband is probably useful and that broadband can be an enabler of economic growth. And anyway, I like to do my part.
I think I signed up with the FCC, oh, in April or so. Just a couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail that I was still in the running because I have the kind of connection they want to include in the tests. Today another e-mail asked me to run a test and give them my address, which is understandable since even in cyber space electrons eventually have to flow somewhere.
The test routine repeatedly crashed Apple Safari, so I had to run it using Firefox. Interesting, the test required me to allow a digital signature from the New America Foundation, the left-leaning think tank started by a former Washington Post editor.
The test showed I have a pretty darn fast connection for a house, more than 5 megabits per second uploads, and 15 megabits per second downloads. In fact a whole report downloaded that has so much detail about the connection that if it was a CAT body scan I would blush.
Despite my purported inbound/outbound state, FIOS has never felt blindingly fast. Specific files such as MP3s or JPEGs people send do come down pretty quick, and YouTube mostly runs better. But performance isn’t like the ads. I don’t play online games so I can’t say how they run. My theory is that when you have a fiber or cable, the limiting factors are not your connection, but interruptions from servers plus caching activity and disk saving going on inside your computer. I also think design of web sites and how they are hosted and architected has a big effect. Some of the big newspapers just never snap onto your screen, for example, because the pages are made of elements from dozens of servers.
One of the biggest improvements with FIOS, frankly, was that it comes with a faster wireless router for inside your house, although both mine and my wife’s computers are wired directly into the router. But other machines for which I use WiFi are noticeably faster even though they are still on the 802.11g standard.
Soon I hope to be helping Uncle Sam get that clear picture of national broadband. I’ll keep you posted.