By Gabe Goldberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 13, 2008
"Broadband, broadband, broadband" could be a new real estate mantra.
"Buyers ask what broadband services are available, who cable providers are and whether [Verizon's] FiOS is in place," said Tania Gonda, an agent with Weichert Realtors in Reston.
Because many people work from home, she said, reliable high-speed Internet is a necessity. "Builders need to make sure broadband service is available and [offer] more than one option," she said. "Consumers want to make their own choices."
Several technologies and diverse vendors provide broadband service: digital subscriber line (DSL) from Verizon and resellers, cable service, satellite connection, and FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) from Verizon.
Considering the pros and cons of each vendor, choosing depends on availability, reliability, speed, reviews, recommendations, personal preferences, and trade-offs between cost and features.
Location determines connection options. Even in the hot-wired D.C. region, there are non-intuitive variations in neighborhoods, such as upscale areas not being served by either or both DSL and cable, said Mark Leymaster, managing partner at Renaissance Software in Silver Spring.
Along with schools, Metro access, crime statistics and roads, check out Internet service provider (ISP) offerings before a move, using Internet searches and Consumer Reports.
Also ask prospective neighbors about services they use and their performance, and visit the comprehensive reference site http://www.dslreports.com for more insight from customers.
Karl Bode, the site's New York-based editor, hears concern with how connections perform during peak times, particularly on cable networks.
To avoid subjectivity -- one person's "really fast" may seem a crawl to another -- http://www.speedtest.net measures connection speed and compares it with averages for the same ISP locally and nationally and ISPs across a state and wider areas. While averages change, multiple tests at varying times will profile an individual connection, especially useful for evaluating cable and satellite service.
In some communities, residents may find choices restricted because the builder signed a contract with one provider, said Karl Signell, a Silver Spring resident active in computer user groups. This can lead to higher homeowners association fees or higher charges to use another ISP. And it can hinder upgrades to newer technologies.
However, if a building or neighborhood is pre-wired, service will be established faster.
Signell also suggests checking homeowner association rules on installing satellite antennas. While FCC regulations favor consumer rights to use such devices, local restrictions can still impose some obstacles.
Ellen Yu, Verizon's manager of media relations, said that FiOS Internet service is available in parts of 16 states. Nationally, the company expects this network to pass 12 million homes by the end of this year and 18 million by the end of 2010.
Now, though, service is a patchwork, as local governments opt in and the company wires neighborhoods. For example, the D.C. Council this month gave preliminary approval to start rolling out service next year, and Alexandria's Web site promises service in late 2009 or 2010. DSLReports provides a FiOS coverage map based on user reports.
Technical consultant Tom Kumpf -- a very happy Ashburn FiOS customer -- suggested bargaining with prospective ISPs for deals, especially when competitors are available. "Think free routers, higher speed at no (or little) cost, etc.," he wrote in an e-mail.
Cable service, a common choice for broadband connectivity, is offered under many brands, including Comcast and Cox in this area.
Kathryn Falk of Comcast said her company is investing in a technology called DOCSIS 3.0, which "opens the door to even faster Internet speeds and a broader variety of services," potentially increasing speed to 70, 100 or 150 megabit per second (Mbps) downloads. There are multiple definitions of broadband, mostly starting at less than one megabit.
Whether current cellphone broadband services are practical is a judgment call. Signal strength varies, so it's critical to ensure that it works where needed, and some tech savvy is needed to make the parts (phone, service plan, computer, software) cooperate. And some service plans impose bandwidth caps, so it's not suitable for power users. Verizon Wireless service is, though, available on Amtrak's Acela.
A new broadband entry is Sprint Nextel's Clear, first launched under the name XOHM. The service, available in Baltimore and planned for Washington soon, is based on the wireless WiMax technology. It will connect home and mobile devices with free roaming and enable location-based services. There won't be a bandwidth cap or contract; monthly and daily plans will be available. Rick Robinson, vice president of product and sales for Sprint Nextel, promises initial download speed of two to four Mbps with bandwidth improvements to follow. That's at the slow end of broadband, but compared to a dial-up connection, it's lightning.
When land-based connectivity isn't available, satellite service can be an option. Satellite ISPs suffer from unavoidable round-trip skyward delays, but there are technological workarounds that make transmission seem faster.
Weather can degrade performance, although Union Bridge, Md., immigration lawyer Bruce Hake said this is "tolerable, considering the absence of alternatives" in the rural area where he lives.
While content may not be an obvious consideration in choosing an ISP, it becomes important as service bundles (Internet, telephone, television, and even cellphone) are more pervasive and sometimes appealing.
For example, sports fans enjoying the http://ESPN360.com broadband sports network should ensure that it's offered by a potential ISP, because it's not available through all of them. "Consumers often make their choice of ISP based solely on speed, brand and proximity," said ESPN spokesman Paul Melvin, but "we believe that over time, content will play a role in that choice."
Finally, once broadband reaches the home, internal connections are required. High-end homes have lately been pre-wired with networks to permit flexible placement of computers. In older construction, running cables has been a chore, often with unsightly results. Increased speed and security now make wireless networking, known as WiFi, a convenient and economical alternative to cabling, allowing devices to chat with each other while resisting bad-guy efforts to snoop.