Why my FIOS is slower than your cable modem (and how I fixed it)

As a technology addict, I jumped on Verizon FIOS as soon as it was available in my area. When I moved last year, I took the service with me. When Cablevision tried to sell me an old-fashioned cable-modem, I didn’t even consider it. Why would I want a measly 25/5 service, when I have a 75/25 fiber optic cable for the same price? As an trained computer scientist, I happen to know that light is very fast. Take that, electrons, I don’t want your cable-wire technology!

And for a while, it was pretty good. But, strangely, Youtube would be pretty slow a lot of the time. Initially, one would think that the problem was with Youtube. But, Youtube is owned by Google. It seems a little strange that Google wouldn’t upgrade their servers or network if they need to. Still, it’s just the one site. Everything else seems to be fine, and very FAST, just like Verizon said. But then, more things started getting slow. Like Netflix. For a while, half the time I tried to watch a show it would just sit there and buffer for a while. And when it did go through, the quality was pretty poor. Well, I thought, Netflix is growing so fast, they probably aren’t able to keep up. But, actually, Netflix runs on Amazon’s computer cluster, which is widely known for it’s scalability. They roughly coined the term “cloud.” Could they really be that slow? Finally, Hulu started having problems. Shows would stutter and stop, and need to be rebuffered. Yet, the problem seemed to be with just Hulu — other sites worked fine, and I got the full bandwidth I expected from speed tests, just like Verizon claimed.

Something was fishy. It’s strange, right, that only tv-like services were slow, but other things seemed fine. Downloads were fast. Speed tests were fast. TV shows and movies were slow. That’s a little too convenient, since Verizon sells their own TV service. “Oh, Netflix is slow? Why don’t you order on-demand through FIOS?” Really Verizon? Really?

It’s no accident. Verizon, along with many other internet carriers, has been fighting a long war against Net Neutrality. Why should customers be able to visit any site they want? Just like you pay extra for HBO or Cinimax, Verizon wants you to pay them extra for Netflix, and Youtube. Here’s a direct quote from a cable executive: “Why should we carry data for free?” They believe that because their customers watch a lot of Netflix, then Netflix should pay Verizon to allow it. In other scenarios, this behavior would be called “monopolistic behavior,” or “a protection racket.” What’s roughly happening is that Verizon is saying to Netflix, “It’d be awfully unfortunate if something happened to your data before it reached the user.”

How did we end up here, where Verizon is even allowed to do this? Well, there are a series of articles from ArsTechnica which explain that in a lot of detail (and I recommend reading them!). I’m going to explain it the way I like things explained to me — as if I were a 5-year-old.

The short version is that the FCC, which regulates cable companies, published a rule which roughly said “Attention internet companies: please get along and don’t throttle each other.” Verizon was able to get around this rule by saying “sure, we’re not going to throttle any service. But if a router happens to break, we may not fix it unless they pay us.” Amazingly, the FCC was ok with this. But, it really wasn’t enough for Verizon, because they wanted more extortion power. So, they sued the FCC in federal court, and won. So, now there is no rule.

Sadly, the FCC is run by a former cable company lobbyist. He made an official statement saying “this is great, now cable companies can operate without regulation. We won’t try to put new rules in, or challenge the court case, but We’ll keep an eye out in case it gets really out of control. Promise.”

Verizon is pretty happy with this. So, they turned around and told Netflix “oh, you thought you were paying us before? The price just went up.”

There’s only one problem. I want to watch Netflix, and I can’t because it’s too slow. Verizon doesn’t really care, and to the extent they do, they think I’ll just buy more from them. Luckily, I live in a place where there’s a competitor. As it turns out, Cablevision has a history of not blocking netflix, or hulu, or youtube. So, yes, fiber optics are usually faster than cable modems. But not when Verizon has their finger on the spigot.

So, how did I fix this problem? I canceled my FIOS subscription and signed up for Cablevision. And then I watched a movie.

I recommend everyone do the same. Verizon’s unbelievably poor behavior only works because because they think they own the customer. Show them that they don’t — if they hurt your internet, then you will switch to another provider. In the end, I don’t care if the problem is because the “network” is slow, or Verizon is throttling, or there is a peering disagreement. All I want to do is watch Netflix. And if Verizon can’t provide that, I’ll find someone who can.

Critical Reading:

PS: Why Cablevision isn’t using this as a major marketing tool is beyond me. I would have switched a long time ago if they had run an ad campaign promising Net Neutrality policies. If anyone from Cablevision wants to contact me, I can tell you exactly how to use this to your advantage.