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Monday, April 9, 2012

Even broadband’s gold standard, fiber-to-the-home, isn’t perfect

David Brooks

When it comes to broadband, fiber-to-the-home is the gold standard. Every time I write about Internet service, I hear envious comments about people who aren’t in the footprint for FairPoint’s FAST, the only such residential service in the area.

But sometimes, even when you’ve got the best, reality can intrude.

Some customers reported months of glitchy service, including online speeds that sometimes plummeted in the evening, although the FairPoint service called FAST, appears to have returned to normal after a late-March upgrade from FairPoint,

“Things seem to have improved significantly since last week. Downloads in the evening are pretty close to what they were,” said Joseph Dziedzic, of Nashua, who has been a customer of the FAST fiber-optic system since it was introduced as FiOS, when Verizon was still the area’s phone company. “Realistically, I can pretty much do anything online imaginable at this point.”

The situation was much different last fall and got worse over the winter, he said.

“There was more disruption in Netflix in the evening, more frequent interruptions for rebuffering. Around November, it started getting kind of annoying, and after the holiday, in January, I called up and started whacking on them, because things were absolutely atrocious in the evening,” Dziedzic said.

He eventually got refunds for several months worth of poor service before the sudden turnaround.

Jeff Nevins, FairPoint spokesman, said Thursday that the company recently “made some changes driven by increase in traffic.”

“We did make some changes in routing to ease the congestion problems,” he said. “This is something we’ve got to continue to do on a constant basis, because of the growth in the demand for bandwidth.”

FAST is a model for broadband because it uses fiber-optic cables – which send signals on light through glass rather than electricity through metal, and thus have much greater potential for speed and carrying capacity – all the way to the house.

Most Internet service these days travels on fiber-optic cables for part of the way, but DSL uses copper phone lines and cable modems use coaxial cables for “last mile” connections to the home.

Fiber-to-the-home systems like FAST are often held up as the gold standard of broadband needed if America is going to use the power of the Internet to hold onto its position in the global marketplace.

The Telegraph regularly gets queries from readers about whether FairPoint plans to expand FAST, which exists in parts of Nashua and 23 other southern New Hampshire communities, from Merrimack to Newington. The answer so far is no, says FairPoint, presumably because of the cost of laying new cable in neighborhoods.

The FAST footprint is largely unchanged since Verizon sold FiOS along with its other northern New England landlines to FairPoint in 2008. FAST also operates in a small portion of Maine.

Dziedzic contacted The Telegraph about his FAST woes last month. As a software engineer for Oracle, he is knowledgeable in ways of checking Internet routing paths, download speeds and latency times, he is also active on a discussion forum called DSLReports, which was full of similar complaints for a time.

Dziedzic said he suspects that FairPoint was overwhelmed by customer response when it dropped the price last summer for its 30/15 FAST service (that is, up to 30 megabits per second download, 15Mbps upload) to $40 a month, less than they had been charging for a slower version. That speed is far more than any other residential service of a comparable price.

“Tech support once said, ‘It’s oversold, we suspect’, and I believe it,” he said.

His online investigations make it appear that as of late March, FairPoint is no longer routing through Alter.net, which was a holdover from Verizon days, presumably as part of upgrades or other changes to handle traffic.

All’s well that ends well? Perhaps, said Dziedzic, although he is still annoyed that FairPoint management wouldn’t admit the problem during the months he was calling.

“FairPoint management had to be aware how long it would take. The calls back I got from customer service supervisors were apologetic, but not always informative,” he said. “The people at the front line are doing their best. This was just a management failure.”

Still, he’s sticking with FAST, for the time being at least.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.