Sunday, August 30, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Internet

Along with television, internet access is probably the most important broadband service out there, and maybe the most important one to any geek worth their salt. We've been subscribers to Sunflower's top-level Gold internet tier for the past several years, and will be getting AT&T U-Verse's top-level internet packages, called Max 18, allowing for a good comparison of each company's best offerings, in the areas of speed, reliability, and performance.

First, a quick look at each company's best offering:

FactorSunflower Broadband Gold*AT&T U-Verse Max 18
Download Speed21 mbps18 mbps
Upload Speed.76 mbps1.5 mbps
Bandwidth50 GB/monthunlimited

* I have heard rumors that Sunflower's Gold service level will gain increased speeds and bandwidth later this fall as they adopt a new cable technology called DOCSIS 3.0 but this is not available yet so I can't yet compare it..

Both AT&T and Sunflower offer other service levels as well, generally offering less speed (and less bandwidth in Sunflower's case) for a cheaper price. Sunflower has an additional level of service called Palladium which does away with any bandwidth limits, and has variable speed levels.

There are technical differences in how Sunflower and AT&T deliver their internet service. As I mentioned, Sunflower uses the standard for all cable internet in America, called DOCSIS. The best way to think about how it is delivered is that the internet is essentially a "channel" on the cable system, except rather then being able to "tune" it with your TV or set top box, it gets "tuned in" by a device called a cable modem, which you can either rent or buy. Cable modems are made by many manufacturers and can be bought at stores like Best Buy. This is a nice benefit of the DOCSIS standard - you don't have to rent a special box, you can buy any compatible model and it can be used on Sunflower's network. Furthermore, many DOCSIS cable modems provide no routing functionality, so technically experienced folks can use all kinds of third party routers with cable internet service to construct sophisticated firewalls and routing systems.

AT&T's U-Verse internet is technically similar to the DSL service that has been offered for a while, although the enhanced bandwidth provided by the VRADs used for U-Verse allow for much faster speeds then previous types of DSL. Unlike the world of cable, there are no independent options for U-Verse's "DSL Modem" - the U-Verse packages includes a device called the Residential Gateway which handles the Internet networking and routing. It cannot be replaced. While this fully integrated device is a boon to less technical users, more experienced users who may have specific routing needs may find themselves frustrated with the built-in router and its limitations. Part of my evaluation of U-Verse this next month will be exploring the functionality of limitations of the Residential Gateway and seeing how adaptable it is to my geeky needs.

Of course, raw download speed isn't the only way I will be evaluating the two services. Upload speed is important as well, especially for people like me who routinely access my computer from outside my home, as well as for uploading movies and photos to the web, and of course peer-to-peer file sharing. Another area of concern in the evaluation will be to issue of bandwidth. Sunflower limits the amount of bandwidth you can use every month, although additional bandwidth can be purchased. We generally manage to avoid overage charges by keeping careful watch on our meter, and I am looking forward to not having this worry with U-Verse. But, is this "freedom" going to be worth an extra $15 per month? Only time will tell.

Another area I want to keep an eye on is network reliability, specifically slowdowns and outages. I run network monitoring software that automatically keeps an eye on the speed and reliability of the internet connection from my computer. I have months of data on how our Sunflower connection has performed, and I want to compare this to how U-Verse does. Will there be unexpected network drop-outs or congestion-related slowdowns in the evenings? My testing should be able to identify if this occurs.

There's only four more days until our U-Verse install. Still to come before then, a brief review of the phone options, and a discussion of customer service.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tech Notes...What is a VRAD and why should you care?

One factor that might make the decision about whether to choose Sunflower, U-Verse, or any other provider easy is whether you can actually get the service at your home, business, spider-hole, bunker, or other place of dwelling.

Sunflower Broadband is the clear leader in Lawrence availability as of this writing. You can get cable-based broadband basically everywhere within the city limits of Lawrence, and even a few areas outside Lawrence. Coaxial cable has been a part of the Lawrence infrastructure for a while, and Sunflower enhanced their network earlier this decade with an improved fiber network backbone serving all of Lawrence. So, if you live in Lawrence, you can count on getting Sunflower Broadband service at your location.

It is more difficult for AT&T. They have access to a community-wide network as well, but it is the old copper phone network, which as I mentioned in an earlier post, doesn't have the bandwidth for broadband cable and internet services like coaxial cable does. AT&T's solution is to run a fiber optic cable backbone to specific termination points located in individual neighborhoods, and from these termination points (which are called VRADs), they then have the ability to push broadband services to individual homes. VRADs look like large beige cabinets, and you can see them being installed around Lawrence if you have a sharp eye. This is an example of what a VRAD looks like.

As an aside, in some parts of the country, AT&T (and competitors like Verizon) actually run fiber lines to each house. This gives amazing amounts of bandwidth, dwarfing anything else around, but it is also much more expensive for the service provider. Eventually, though, fiber to the home will probably become as common as electricity and water to the home.

Anyway, because AT&T has to install the VRADs in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, it is taking them a while to roll U-Verse out to our entire city. AT&T needs to find a spot in each neighborhood to place the VRAD, then arrange to have electricity and a fiber cable run to it. Once a VRAD is in your neighborhood, and AT&T's own testing is complete, they can provide service. Whether you can get service depends on how close you are to the VRAD, as measured in the actual feet the phone wires travel between the VRAD and your house (not a straight line either, as phone wires may zag around). You are usually in good shape if you are within a few thousand feet of the VRAD. I don't know for sure, but I would expect AT&T will be spacing them out so that eventually all of Lawrence will be within a service area.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Geek Super Bowl Preview: Television

First up is everyone's favorite waster of time, the boob tube...television.

Both Sunflower and U-Verse offer a comprehensive set of television packages, roughly divided into four tiers, ranging from a low end featuring over-the-air stations plus a few basic cable channels to high-end packages featuring hundreds of channels, including premium networks. We are going to be comparing the mid-range offerings of the two providers - plans that offer, in my opinion, the most "bang for the buck" -- You get all the popular cable networks, a decent amount of sports, music channels, and all the usual non-premium channels you expect to get with cable TV.

Sunflower calls this level of service "Bronze" and AT&T calls it "U-200".

Price-wise, both are fairly similar. U-Verse's U-200 is $64 per month, plus extra fees for things like HD service and additional televisions (the service includes 1 set-top box/DVR). Sunflower's Bronze service is $56 a month, plus extra fees for additional HD-DVRs and set top boxes (Bronze service includes 1 standard definition set-top box). We actually use a Tivo currently with our Sunflower service, so we do not need to rent a DVR, but to keep comparisons equal, this is what it would cost to equip a typical home with 3 TVs with each provider, if you rent the DVRs and set-top boxes:

DescriptionSunflower BronzeAT&T U-200
Base Package$56$64
HD Feenone/included$10
TV #1 - HD - DVR$10 additional fee to upgrade to HD DVRnone/included
TV #2 - HD - no DVR$10 set top box$7 set top box
TV #3 - Standard Definition - No DVR$5 set top box$7 set top box

So, roughly the same. Obviously adding or changing a TV here or there might make a $10 difference either way, and your price may change if you don't need a set top box (which is an option for Sunflower, see below for technical details), but it is fair to say you will likely spend close to the same amount of money, if you have three or less TV sets in your home, perhaps with a slight edge in price to Sunflower.

Before I got any further, I need to digress into geek-ville. The fact is that fundamentally, cable-based TV (which Sunflower provides) and IP-based TV (which U-Verse provides) are fundamentally different "behind the scenes" and these technical differences explain much of the limitations, and advantages of each service.

Warning....several paragraphs of technical stuff ahead. But I really try to explain it in a non technical way :-)

Cable providers generally broadcast all their channels all the time. This basically means that all the channels your service provides are always flowing through the wires into your house, even when the TV is off. When you are tuned to ESPN, VH-1 and hundreds of other channels are being pumped into your house along side of it. Since this "river" of programming is always flowing, you can generally plug in as many TVs as you want into the coax outlets in your home, and access programming freely, as easy as simply "plugging in."

This has changed a little bit in recent years, as cable companies have moved towards digital programming. Many TVs need a digital box to pick up the new digital cable channels, but fundamentally, you can basically plug any TV into the wall and get some cable channels. Sunflower offers a bunch of "basic" channels without requiring any type of box, and you can pick up the entire gamut of their lineup with a modern TiVo (which is what we use), or by using any newer TV that can tune in digital cable ("QAM").

The down side of this ease of use is that there is limited interactivity. Sunflower (and other cable providers) offer video-on-demand, where you can interactively order programming. This requires a digital box, and often uses a technology called switched digital video, where the "river" of incoming programming is actually switched and controlled "upstream" in response to the users' requests. Traditional cable television is gradually moving towards this more interactive, switched digital future, but for now, a great benefit of traditional cable TV, as provided by Sunflower in Lawrence, is that anything can plug into TVs, old TVs, digital and analog tuner cards for computers, and so on. A set-top box might get you added features, but it is not a requirement....yet.

So, here comes AT&T with their U-Verse system. They faced a big problem.
At its core, the coaxial cable that Sunflower (and other cable services around the country) offer has much more capacity then the copper phone wire used by AT&T. So, how can AT&T possibly provide hundreds of channels over a pipe that is many times narrower then coaxial cable? Their answer is that rather then provide the "stream" of hundreds of channels to your home, they instead only transmit the channels you are actively watching or recording. So if your TV is on Comedy Central and the kids are watching Nickelodeon, those are the only two channels that flow into your house at the time. Change a channel, and AT&T transmits this request "upstream" to the fiber box in your neighborhood, which switches the channel and starts sending you the new channel you requested.

Because every channel change and other request is sent "upstream," the AT&T system allows for some fairly sophisticated interactive features, such as a variety of "applications" that can be run on the TV,as well as sophisticated time-and-place shifting of the channels you are watching. This enables features such as pausing a show in one room of the house and "picking it up" in another room, or instantly transmitting recorded shows between TVs.

While the U-Verse system represents an elegant technical solution to a tricky problem, it is not without its own downsides. First is the limited bandwidth. AT&T claims that they support up to two HD channels and two standard definition channels at the same time. This means if you have 5 TVs in your house, two of them must be watching the same channel. Furthermore, since the U-Verse system requires its own custom set-top boxes to function, each TV must have one of these boxes installed. In addition to the cost of rental, this means you can't just "plug in" to U-Verse or use your own equipment (such as a TiVo or computer tuner card); You need to use AT&Ts equipment.

U-Verse and traditional cable TV cannot co-exist on the same physical wires. During our trial, we will continue to use our home's coaxial cable for Sunflower, while running U-Verse over a set of parallel CAT-5e ethernet cables, which will be installed as part of the U-Verse installation.

We have a television set with two HDMI inputs. One input will have our TiVo HD, connected to Sunflower, while the other will have the AT&T U-Verse box. This will give us the ability to see the same programming provided from both sources, and compare the quality. Both U-Verse and Sunflower compress their HD signals, but the compression may differ. We plan to watch a mixture of shows -- sports, movies, action, talk shows, and even some standard def programming to fairly compare the two services.

OK, most of the super geeky stuff is out of the way...

Keep in mind, its not just the channel list and content we are comparing. Part of it is ease of use. We love our TiVo and its famous UI. Will the U-Verse box be like a Mac user switching to Windows? How easy will it be to do basic tasks like skipping commercials, setting up a season pass, or finding a favorite show.

I am also interested in how U-Verse handles local channels. Their channel lineup contains the main Kansas City over-the-air networks, but none of the local Lawrence or KU channels Sunflower offers, or any of the Topeka stations. I am also wondering how U-Verse is for sports. I am an avid college football fan, and look forward to being able to watch KU play this fall. It will certainly be a test to see if KU (and other teams I follow) are available on U-Verse as well as Sunflower.

We will find out and let you know, because in the end, it's not about U-Verse or's about watching The Office and Mythbusters (and Rock Chalk Jayhawk!)

Still to come, previews of the Internet side of the game, as well as some quick looks at the phone and customer service.

U-Verse vs Sunflower: Full-Out Geek Brawl

There are two heavyweight contenders for broadband supremacy in Lawrence, Kansas. They are AT&T's U-Verse and Sunflower Broadband. These two services are the only ones that offer the "triple play" of services: TV, phone, and internet.

Although they provide similar services, the two companies utilize different technologies to connect to the home. Both Sunflower and AT&T utilize fiber optic cable backbones, but neither company actually runs fiber to your house. Sunflower uses coaxial cable to transport data from their fiber network to your house, while AT&T uses copper telephone wiring to transfer data from their fiber network to your house. Sunflower's service is available throughout Lawrence, and AT&T is rapidly rolling out U-Verse, with the expectation that it will be available throughout the city by the end of the year.

We're going to compare the two services. We already subscribe to Sunflower's top-of-the-line Internet service, called Gold, as well as their most popular tier of cable service, called Bronze. We recently signed up for a U-Verse trial, requesting the equivalent level of TV Service (their "200 tier") and their top internet level ("Elite"). During the month we subscribe to both services, I will be doing comparisons of both the internet and TV service and quality, as well as general experiences with both services and companies, from the initial install to the final verdict, to give you an idea of what each one is like, and its plusses and minuses. And of course, as a geek, I will be very interested in sharing as much technical detail about the equipment, configurations, and so forth as I can.

Our U-Verse install is scheduled for the end of next week. Before then, emulating a sports columnist looking at each of the teams before the big game, I'll take a look at what advantages and disadvantages both AT&T and Sunflower bring to the table, what each company is advertising, and what I see as some of their strengths and weaknesses. I will try to be as fair as I can and give an unbiased opinion, documenting our experiences over the next month. Hopefully it will be as interesting for you to read as it is for me to experiment with!