Tech Break: Comcast, Verizon and Apple

The last few weeks were relatively busy for the nation’s largest ISP, the nation’s largest wireless provider and the nation’s hottest computer manufacturer, and each company’s announcements had something to do with communications.With Comcast and Apple, the story was about getting data faster. With Verizon, price was a keyword on both ends of the spectrum, thanks to their release of the rather expensive Motorola Xoom tablet and their priced-to-sell landline replacement service.

Apple’s innovation for the week was Thunderbolt, an Intel technology known to technology mavens as Light Peak until Thursday, when the tech was released as part of a significant refresh to Apple’s MacBook Pro line. The Thunderbolt port combines dual channel 10 Gbps PCI Express data paths with a Mini DisplayPort connector so Apple didn’t need to add another port to their systems.

The port will allow daisy-chaining of up to six devices (one of which can be a Mini DisplayPort monitor…or a monitor behind a Mini DisplayPort adapter) and outruns any currently available I/O interface…except maybe ten-gigabit Ethernet, which is not available on a notebook at this point. The interface is fast enough that LaCie, the Lexus of external hard disks, introduced a Thunderbolt-specific drive containing two solid state disks operating in parallel, an activity that would be pointless on a slower interface such as Firewire 800 or USB 2.0 (though USB 3.0 should be able to handle the load). At this point though, the question remains of whether Apple will keep the interface to itself (like Firewire 800 has effectively been), or whether the technology will show up in computers from other companies, avoiding chicken-and-egg problems that would otherwise keep the market of Thunderbolt peripherals disappointingly small.

On the Verizon front, the Motorola Xoom tablet, the first Internet tablet available with Google’s “Honeycomb” Android operating system, appears to be the flavor of the week, however the device costs $800 if you want a version that starts with 3G support from Verizon and will be upgraded to LTE later. You can also nab the device for $600 if you are willing to get a WiFi-only device that…well…isn’t the iPad.

However the bigger deal for people who aren’t made out of money is Verizon’s cellular-based home phone replacement, which has been offered in a few areas in the Northeast for a month or two but was recently upgraded to nationwide availability. The service, dubbed Verizon Home Phone Connect, nets you a device that turns Verizon’s cellular signal into something a landline telephone can interact with, and comes in two flavors: unlimited, standalone local and long distance calling for $19.99 per month, and standard add-a-line-style service (unlimited nights and weekends, unlimited calling to other Verizon Wireless customers) for $9.99 per month on top of an existing Verizon plan. Caller ID (number, not name…this is a cellular network after all) is included, as are Call Waiting and 3-Way Calling. The cellular-to-landline adapter, which includes a backup battery good for 3.5 hours of talk time or a day and a half of standby time, costs $130 if you don’t sign a contract, $50 if you sign for a year or nothing if you agree to keep the service for two years.

The device and service, which was trialed in areas where Verizon does not offer wireline phone service, is a direct shot across the bow of pretty much every home phone company out there, whether that company is Vonage, the able company or today’s edition of Ma Bell. Compared to lanldine charges of $35-$45 per month, plus another $15 in taxes and fees, the Verizon product offers comparable service for less money; even cable companies, who hit the $30-$40 range with their service, are expensive compared to Verizon’s product. VoIP services from third parties like Vonage are priced comparable to Verizon’s service, but Home Phone Connect doesn’t need Internet to function.

The disadvantage of the service is that it requires a Verizon Wireless signal to function, and if natural disaster strikes cellular networks always seem to be the first to get knocked out or overloaded. However if Verizon works well in your area and you’re willing to make the peace-of-mind tradeoff, Verizon’s service is a viable landline alternative…which probably makes wired home phone providers like Qwest even more nervous than they are now, since Verizon is willing to cannibalize its own wireline base in favor of reaching beyond the traditional bounds of its landline infrastructure to pick up customers from across the US.

For Comcast, technically the past few weeks have harbored no announcements other than background noise relating to the cable giant’s acquisition of NBC Universal. However it appears as though the company, which has more cable and Internet subscribers than any other provider and the US, and more landline phone subscribers than anyone except Verizon and AT&T, will be edging their Internet speed tiers upward in the near future, possibly as a way to offset customer ire from their recent rate hike. The biggest speed bumps will be to Comcast’s highest and third-highest speed tiers; their nearly-$200-per-month 105 Mbps tier will be pushed from 10 Mbps on uploads to 20, and their more modestly priced Blast tier will see a bump from 16 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up to 25 and 4 Mbps, respectively.

Comcast will also introduce two tiers, Economy Plus and Performance Starter, at price points between their current Economy tier (around $40 plus modem rental) and Performance (around $60), which will get a 3 Mbps download speed upgrade to 15 Mbps. Economy Plus is aimed squarely at DSL customers, with 3 Mbps of download speed and 768 Kbps for uploads, while Performance Starter will hit 6 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, the same speed as the company’s Performance tier was two years ago…when the price of that tier was around $12 lower. Performance Starter looks to be the speed tier promised by Comcast in its NBC acquisition filings, which pegs the service’s price point at $50 per month, about what the same service cost two or three price hikes ago.

One thing to note is that, with these speed increases, Comcast’s last-mile network channels will become more saturated with traffic. As a result, to get Comcast’s PowerBoost temporary speed upgrade…or maybe even advertised speeds on sustained downloads…you may need to rent or buy a DOCSIS 3.0 capable modem and use it instead of an older DOCSIS 2.0 capable unit. Your best bet in this area is the Motorola SB6120, which retails for about $80 on and Amazon.

Have more questions about the topics covered in this article? Comment on the online version! Otherwise, see you next week.

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