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A few feet from failure: why Verizon FiOS in New York is a sad joke

verizon fios truck

Brooklyn coder and entrepreneur Mike Caprio has been trying to get Verizon’s high-speed FiOS fiber internet service since 2009, but the company repeatedly told him it wasn’t available in his Williamsburg apartment. He finally got hooked up this week — but only because a Verizon press rep heard him complaining on the radio.

"Apparently the best thing to do was to make a stink on public media," says Caprio, who was amazed to see four crews show up Monday to run the long-awaited fiber from the first floor of his building to his apartment. "It just seems to underscore the fact that no one is getting service. It’s extremely arbitrary if the actions of just one guy made all this happen for me."

Three weeks ago, Caprio was on the radio talking about the New York City tech scene and the need for faster internet. He mentioned that he couldn’t get FiOS in his building. The next day, a Verizon press rep emailed him. After struggling with Time Warner Cable’s slow speeds, which had crept to 700k, and then trying a succession of 4G devices, Caprio is finally happily surfing at Verizon’s blazing fast 66-megabit download speeds.

FiOS availability has been frustratingly spotty

Verizon has a contract with the city that promises fiber access in every neighborhood. However, the availability of the service has been frustratingly spotty, skipping buildings, floors, and blocks without clear explanation. Verizon says that’s because landlords aren’t letting them install fiber, but Caprio’s experience suggests that’s not always the case. Since he started telling the story, at least a dozen people have asked him for help getting fiber — including his landlord.

Verizon signed a franchise agreement with New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DOITT) in 2008 in which it promised to get fiber access to all New York City residents by the summer of 2014. Most people read the news and figured that meant FiOS would be available to most, if not all, city residents. (And that there would finally be a competitor to Time Warner, the infamously inefficient internet provider that serves much of New York.)

There were a lot of caveats in the contract, however. Verizon is only required to "pass all households," a vague term that means the fiber need to extend "to a point from which the building can be connected to the network." Verizon is not obligated to make that connection, however. As a result, the company is now claiming around 75 percent accessibility, even though the number of New Yorkers who can actually sign up for FiOS is probably much lower. A study by public advocate Bill de Blasio concluded that just 51 percent of households in New York have fiber access. The city and Verizon dispute these figures.

"I have a friend in Washington Heights who has been waiting for a long, long time," says Karl Bode, a broadband expert and editor of the blog Broadband Reports. "I don’t think they’ll ever get to some of these neighborhoods. They just don’t see it as worthwhile."

"I don’t think they’ll ever get to some of these neighborhoods. They just don’t see it as worthwhile."

Verizon has said publicly that once its current obligations are met, it has no plans to keep building out the FiOS network nationally. The company has used this line to justify its partnership with Comcast, which has been criticized as collusion. Analysts say the company is reorienting toward its more profitable wireless business, offering 4G service billed as broadband while selling off its copper wire network. Wall Street has even encouraged the company to divest itself of landlines and FiOS entirely in the light of booming quarterly returns for the wireless business.

If that happens, internet speeds in New York City and the rest of the country could suffer in the long term, says Susan Crawford, who works on internet advocacy issues at the Roosevelt Institute. "What Americans don’t seem to recognize is that we’re slipping into third world status when it comes to this basic infrastructure," she says.

The situation in New York is reflective of the country’s greater problem of staying up to speed on internet connections. In Seoul, South Korea, city residents have a choice of three or four high-speed broadband providers for about $30 a month. That’s because the city is building its own infrastructure that private providers then built on top of, she says. About 150 cities in the US have gone a similar route, including Chattanooga, Tennessee, which recently flipped the switch on its gigabit-per-second connection.

Google has also posed what some see as a call to action for the nation’s broadband providers with its superfast Fiber initiative. Google Fiber is only available in three cities right now, however, and access isn’t uniform.

Crawford is also concerned that FiOS has not reached the outer boroughs. "Poorer people are often not served, or are served inadequately," she says. "‘Passing’ does not equal actually getting a connection into your home… where in form they may have met the requirements of the agreement, they absolutely have not met the spirit of the agreement."

There is a greater problem

John Bonomo, the spokesperson for Verizon who arranged for Caprio’s connection, says Verizon is still committed to providing fiber and other wired service to customers.

"When we began the FiOS project in 2005 or so, we said that we would pass about 18M households," he writes in an email. "We are virtually there; so we have made good on what we said we would do."

The company is "in discussions every single day with landlords" to get more FiOS availability in New York, he says. Some landlords don’t see the benefit in allowing Verizon to tear up the yard to install FiOS, and some buildings may already have agreements with one provider.

The irony in all this is that the frustration with Verizon wouldn’t exist if it didn’t offer such an excellent product. Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino, has been trying for years to get Verizon to build in the city to no avail, so he was aggravated when the company aired a FiOS commercial using Boston as the backdrop. Verizon says it’s too expensive to install fiber in Boston, which means Comcast and RCN are the only two cable providers for its 650,000 residents. That sort of duopoly is typical, and it’s what’s keeping prices high and speeds low in New York and across the country. Unfortunately, being passed by fiber doesn’t help.

Frustration with Verizon wouldn't exist if FiOS weren't such a desirable product

The city seems satisfied with how Verizon has held up its end of the bargain. When asked whether Verizon had met its contract obligations, the mayor’s office first asked The Verge what Verizon had said, then referred us to DOITT, which actually has the contract. DOITT referred us to the mayor’s office. When told that the mayor wasn’t commenting, DOITT suggested we speak with Verizon. When pressed, a spokesperson said, "We just don’t have anything to add here."

The Verge
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