Fiber War of Words

Who can boast supremacy in the delivery of digital products over fiber?

Both cable operators and the nation's second-largest telephone company, Verizon Communications, are staking that claim.

Verizon touts its superiority in a new round of commercials, featuring customers raving about the picture clarity and fast Internet upload and download speeds (see page 40).

Those characteristics are attributable to Verizon taking fiber all the way to subscribers' homes, said Verizon executive director of marketing communications Geoff Walls. The fiber-to-the-home architecture of its FiOS plant can provide almost unlimited bandwidth to provide services.

Cable companies must “raid their video service capacity or drop channels” to offer more advanced services or increase Internet speeds because incumbents' plant is only fiber to the node or, at best, to the curb, according to Verizon.

Cable operators counter that the emphasis on fiber to the home may just mask other problems Verizon is facing in rolling out its TV and Internet services.

“Maybe Verizon is feeling some heat over failing to deliver on its own promises to consumers — like delivering free HDTVs to new customers within four to six weeks,” responded Cox Communications vice president of product marketing David Pugliese.

Also, fiber is nothing new to cable operators. Cox began using fiber more than 10 years ago and deploys it in a fashion typical of other cable operators: to neighborhood hubs called nodes. From there, coaxial cable reaches individual homes.

If consumers are confused it may be because Verizon has tried to differentiate on its network infrastructure “when it's really about the services delivered and the quality of customer experience,” Pugliese said.

Cable operators also note they have more fiber in place nationally than Verizon. “We do have more fiber, and have been using it longer and better everywhere, not just in select areas,” added Comcast senior director of corporate communications Jenni Moyer.

This has allowed Comcast to deliver more than 275 million on-demand views a month in its TV service. With its Internet service, it supplies consumers with 1.1 billion Web-page views and delivers 57 million e-mail messages per day, she said.

Comcast does it better while Verizon plays catch-up, she asserted, noting that as it increases data speeds — the company last week said it's offering 50 Mbps connections, starting in Minneapolis-St. Paul (see page 3) — that throughput will be made available across the country, “not just to a select few,” she said.

But fiber-to-the-home does give Verizon an advantage, according to at least one viewer who compared high-definition pictures side-by-side and posted the results to the Web. (“Squash Match,” March 31, 2008, page 9).

“From a strategic and technical standpoint, Verizon has an advantage over cable,” said Vince Vittore, senior analyst, broadband solutions with The Yankee Group. Verizon's architecture serves to “future-proof” the network. That means once it is built out, “they won't have to dig in the ground anytime soon.”

Cable operators say they can meet any future capacity needs by reducing the number of households served by a node, using switched digital video to send programming only when requested and by other technical means.

Walls said cable providers confuse consumers with their claims to fiber architecture. As examples, he cited commercials from Cox Communications (an animated spot that asserts the phone companies are a decade behind Cox as far as fiber investment) and Cablevision Systems (the voiceover states that “they're” talking about fiber but “a lot of their network isn't”).

Cable's claims to a fiber network on par with that being built by Verizon is “like saying a Volkswagen and a [Rolls-Royce] are the same because they both have tires,” he said.