By the time video streaming went mainstream and devices like thermostats and security cameras were linked to home internet hubs, Verizon Communications had already seen the future. Today, Verizon’s FiOS service has more than 5 million customers who get Internet over fiber optic cable running to their homes, as an alternative to cable broadband or copper DSL.
Only two years ago did Norwalk-based Frontier Communications begin rolling out its own fiber-to-the-home service in Connecticut, after picking up a piece of the FiOS footprint via the 2016 buy of Verizon territories in Florida, Texas and California. Cable provider Optimum also began offering fiber to parts of Connecticut over the past two years.
So if your monthly bill reads Xfinity, Spectrum, Cox or Atlantic Broadband, you are about to get a new option, whether from Frontier, upstart GoNetSpeed which is stringing fiber in portions of Connecticut, or municipal alternatives like FiberCities which signed up East Hartford for a fiber buildout.
If fiber optic is still a few years from your neighborhood, 5G wireless broadband may be coming sooner from Verizon, AT&T or T-Mobile — or already on your doorstep. Here are a few things to think about in timing any decision to switch broadband carriers or use the newly arrived competition to cajole your cable carrier for a better rate.
As many of us learned the hard way, the COVID-19 pandemic stretched the limits of broadband in the backbone and the home. Our schools went over to remote learning, we all gave or got crash courses on Zoom, and stuck at home we streamed more videos and gaming.
For many of us, those online sessions bogged down from the get-go with buffering delays and dropped connections, though to the credit of carriers they did respond by working to optimize networks over the following months.
Did fiber customers fare better? Complaints on Internet speeds spiked at a far higher rate for cable broadband customers than those with fiber connections, according to a June study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.
So what speeds should you shop for? The Federal Communications Commission’s current definition of broadband is 25 megabits per second downstream, and 3 mbps upstream. The Carnegie Mellon crowd says the Zoom era is better served by 20 mbps or better in both directions.
As of this fall, the new Frontier Fiber Internet service shattered that floor at 500 mbps in both directions for its lowest-price plan. The best services from Cox, Spectrum and Xfinity all offer upload speeds topped out at 35 mbps — and what’s more, they cost more. Optimum recently introduced a 1-gigabit fiber service as an upgrade over its existing cable internet.
The wireless 5G home internet plans coming from Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile boast 50 mbps upstream capacity, and typical downloads of 300 mbps.
Connecticut was a big beneficiary in Frontier’s decision to continue extending fiber to the home during its 2020 bankruptcy — which was triggered by debt it took on in acquiring the Verizon territories.
And at the outset, Frontier Fiber Internet is a bargain on the monthly statement as well at $50 a month. That’s at least 25 percent better than the cable carrier alternatives in Connecticut, and in some instances half the price. Frontier locks in that price for a year, with the customary fee for any early termination by a customer.
Cable carriers appear to be tapping the brakes on price increases as fiber proliferates and wireless 5G looms. In a June report, the US Telecom trade group tracked a 26 percent decline in the most popular broadband services nationally, to just under $50 a month; and a 39 percent decline in the packages with the fastest speeds, to about $75.
Depending on fiber and wireless 5G availability, that gives you some leverage. Use it — but build in a window of time and a reserve of patience.
Give your cable carrier a call and tell them the competing rate in your area. Be prepared for that exchange to get escalated into a prolonged marketing pitch on download speeds, TV bundles and reliability — and even the possibility of an “upsell” for better download capacity at a higher price.
Boomerang back at every turn to the upload speeds you need for conferencing. If you don’t get a better rate or the call hits the outer limit of whatever time window you have set aside, consider a second phone call for a better broadband alternative.
There are ancillary considerations for broadband, from extra fees on things like home Wi-Fi routers, to the possibility of data caps down the road, to the still-emerging body of research on 5G wireless.
As of this autumn, Xfinity and Cox had monthly data caps on their plans at 1.2 and 1.25 terabytes, respectively, with fees for overages and unlimited plans available for an additional cost. Stripping down Cox estimates to the basics, that 1.25 TB allowance adds up to eight hours of daily conferencing for each of the four people in a household, along with 13 hours of video streaming as a group and more photos and music than any individual could download.
Frontier, Optimum and Spectrum did not have data caps in place at the time of this writing — and it is possible Congress or the FCC will revisit the topic of data caps at some point during the Biden administration’s tenure.
As for 5G wireless, some have expressed concern over the radiation from millimeter-wave transceivers that are positioned on utility poles near customer homes to deliver the internet. Wireless carriers and other 5G proponents have been quick to rebut those claims. Whatever your own research convinces you, those networks can still work to your advantage as a point of leverage in trying to get a better broadband deal.
Update (11/23/21): The article was updated to include a new fiber service offered by Optimum.