Verizon FiOS vs. Cox Cable: My experiences

Note: I switched from Cox Communications to Verizon FiOS in March 2009 and chronicled my experiences here. I have updated this post repeatedly since that time, and there is a one-year update here. This has received thousands of page views from people who have Googled for information about the two providers. Note again that this was written in ***March 2009*** and its talking points may now be obsolete (although as of August 2012, I remain a Verizon customer). Feel free to drop a comment here if you’d like more information, and I’ll help you if I can — R.

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I switched from digital cable to Verizon FiOS on Sunday. After two days, here are my observations:

INSTALLATION: Arranging an installation was a highly annoying process and got within five minutes of being a deal-breaker. First you have to call Verizon, which has one phone number for all services instead of a direct number to order FiOS; then you have to navigate through the usual set of hideous voice-assisted prompts; and then if you’re lucky and don’t get cut off (I got cut off twice), you get an order person.

Next, you’ll find out it might take a month to get your service installed unless you’re willing to give up half a weekday. I wasn’t going to do that, so I took the one-month hit and set up an all-day appointment window for Saturday, Feb. 28.

When the day came, Verizon called at 11 a.m. and said a tech could not come out because they were too busy that day.

Ahem.

Clearly some people are unfamiliar with the definition of the word ‘appointment,’ especially when they’re seeking new customers.

However, I didn’t have any weekend plans and they offered me an installation the next day, so I decided to be flexible. I rescheduled for the 8a-11a window on Sunday, hoping to beat the snowstorm.

I got up early again Sunday and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, my wife and I threw our arms up in the air and decided to leave for lunch and give up on the whole concept — but at 11:55, as we were literally within a couple of minutes of walking out the door, the phone call came that a tech was on the way. “Uh huh,” I thought.

However, the tech was there within 15 minutes and things definitely got better from there. He spent the next three-plus hours setting up the house.

The tech started by running a fiber line from a pole down the block to the pole nearest our house, then ran the fiber from there to the house itself. He mounted a junction box on the outside of the house, came inside, bolted a power supply/battery backup to a bedroom baseboard, drilled a hole through the house to the outside and ran the cable through the power supply. He disconnected the cable company’s connection and installed his own at the point where the cable ran into the house.

He then set up the combination internet adapter/wireless router that Verizon uses, swapped out the cable company’s digital converter/DVR box for his own (an easy task because I use HDMI connections) and we were in business.

PICTURE/SOUND QUALITY: Stunning, for the most part. FiOS offers many, many more HD channels than Cox Cable, and they are generally superior in quality in my opinion. The HBO package on FiOS is a jaw-dropper: It includes every HBO channel and every *West Coast* feed of those HBO channels, all in HD. Cox offers the main channel in HD, all of the other channels in SD and only one West Coast feed — for the main channel, and only in SD.

FiOS has so many channels that it is hard for me to track them all, and their program guide gives you the options of showing only the HD channels (almost everything FiOS carries is available in HD except for some shopping channels and a few other exceptions). I haven’t counted the channels yet but it wouldn’t shock me if FiOS offers 30-40 more channels than Cox.

In addition to the improved video quality, the audio quality on FiOS is vastly superior to Cox in my opinion. There was much more depth and less compression to the sound, and my HDMI-switching receiver had none of the audio dropouts and trying-to-figure-out-the-signal problems with FiOS that were common with Cox channels.

One notable place where I thought FiOS was inferior was the signal quality of ESPN, which was the best-looking of all Cox HD channels but is merely OK on FiOS.

Cox also had sporadic signal strength issues in my neighborhood; I finally got tired of that and bought a two-way signal booster, which solved the problem. I’ve seen no such issues with FiOS, although it’s too soon to really judge.

DVR/PROGRAM GUIDE:
The FiOS DVR and program guide has its pluses and its minuses over Cox. The graphics on the program guide are sharper and more modern, but the guide is in an inexplicable 4:3 format instead of 16:9. This means you see a smaller time spread when you go looking through the guide. FiOS offers you more options for searching for programs (which is a good thing because there are so many channels) and it’s just more flexible overall. It’s still no TiVO but I don’t want to buy a TiVO box.

INTERNET QUALITY:
Warning: If the following is all geek to you, trust me: You’ll be fine with the FiOS setup.

FiOS forces you to use their combo adapter/wireless router, which uses the Wireless G standard. My old wireless router used Wireless N, which is vastly faster than G (and in many cases as fast as a wired connection). That’s important because I have no wire running to my desktop PC in another room — I rely on the wireless N router to get decent speed. I also use Vonage for my phone service and had no intention of giving it up — it’s cheaper than Verizon’s FiOS offering and I’ve been a Vonage fan for a long time.

I suspected there was a possibility of nothing but trouble if I tried to turn off the Wireless G connection, tried to get my wireless N router working, and also hung the Vonage box off the back of the FiOS router. Among other issues, voice over IP phone service absolutely hammers a router; I’d already burned up one dLinkrouter because I hung the Vonage box behind it.

In fact, there was no such trouble.

I turned off the Wireless G signal from the FiOS router, which is well-ventilated and sturdy-looking, and turned off the wired routing functions of the dLink, making it a wireless access point only. I hung the Vonage box and the dLink box behind the FiOS router, and everything worked together immediately at high speed. Now, that will work OK for web surfing but not for some other uses; there are geekier/more formal configuration things I’ll need to do to solve that problem, but I’m fine with this for now.

When I get everything configured, the Verizon should be significantly faster (in theory) — but Cox was fast enough and reliable (except when the signal fade problem popped up) and I had no complaints there.

OVERALL: Verizon needs to work significantly on its customer service — an area where I felt Cox was excellent and Verizon is poor — but this product is a winner. I believe the product is clearly superior to Cox’s digital cable, and the advantage of running fiber all the way to the house means there are a lot of bandwidth options Verizon should be able to execute going forward that Cox can’t do. It’s cheaper than what I was paying for my old service, although I’m sure Cox would have price-matched anything Verizon did.

I haven’t canceled Cox yet. I’m going to give FiOS a week or two before I turn in my Cox equipment, just to be safe, but I doubt I’m going back.

ADDENDUM 3/5: With a few more days under my belt, I’ll note a couple of things: There have been times when, upon changing channels, FiOS will not send sound with the picture or will flash up a “channel not available” notice. This can be fixed by changing the channel again, and then changing back to the problematic channel. It’s a rare problem.

FiOS’ DVR is more powerful and more flexible — and thus in some ways harder to use — than Cox’s. The 4:3 screen becomes a real problem when you want to record a show that happens to be on, say, three different channels…but you can only read part of the channel descriptions. As a result, you do a certain amount of guesswork. That 4:3 program guide has got to go.

A final note: Remember that much of what I am saying here is subjective opinion (although with the use of the proper measuring tools, I am very confident my observations would be backed up by objective facts). Your mileage and your installation may vary. I point this out because this has become a popular post and I suspect that once it gets fully integrated into search engines, it’ll become more popular still.

ADDENDUM 3/7: After some persistent signal lock issues (the box would lock in a signal on a channel and then lose it), I rebooted the Verizon box tonight. You can do this by simply unplugging the power from the back of the box, waiting a few seconds and plugging it back in (the same trick works with the Cox box). This solved the problem. I did notice that the Verizon/Motorola box ran very, very warm — warmer than I might have anticipated and certainly warmer than the Cox/Scientific Atlanta box. I’ll keep an eye on this.

This morning I called Cox and canceled my cable service. The trick when doing things like this is to not get engaged in a question-and-answer session with salespeople. They have computers in front of them with scripts that they walk through. Those scripts are designed to put you back on the hook. My salesperson was immediately rude (which is itself a hardball sales tactic) when I told him I would not answer any questions about why I was canceling the service.  He then tried repeatedly to put me back on the script, mentioning at least four times that Cox was cheaper than Verizon (a debatable point) and saying Cox had superior service (which is not debatable in my experience: They do).

“Thank you” was my response to those points. It took at least 10 minutes of “thank yous” to get to the divorce. Now I have to bring in my hardware, which will probably lead to yet still again more negotiating. But I’m an audio and video freak and a decent tech geek, so this really was an easy choice.

ADDENDUM 4/7: Cox Cable gets its revenge: They’ve billed my Amex for another month of service, even though I’ve canceled cable and returned my equipment. I called Cox today and was told that, yep, the records do indicate that I canceled and returned the equipment, and that they billed me anyway. Great. I’m working my way through the dispute process right now.

ADDENDUM 7/14: I’ve had Verizon for a few months now. The minor tech issues have almost entirely disappeared; Internet access has been rock-solidly reliable (which always was the case with Cox as well, btw); the bill is $45 a month less than my old Cox bill and I feel good about my choice.

Cox sent me a refund for the month they overbilled me and they regularly send me solicitation fliers saying they are the “home town choice” (Cox is headquartered in Atlanta, BTW) but I otherwise haven’t heard from them.

Something very odd happened today that I blame entirely on the Verizon installer. The power supply/battery backup unit for FiOS, which is mounted on a wall near the baseboard in a back room, ripped out of the wall and fell to the floor today (a distance of only a few inches).

The installer bolted the unit directly into the drywall instead of finding a stud. This unit is too heavy for that nonsense. Now I have four little holes in a wall and a unit that is lying on the floor.

What would have been even worse for most people: This drop caused the power supply connector to unplug itself. The problem: This connector is hidden behind a bolted-shut panel in the power supply, meaning you can’t see this problem when you look at the box. In addition, bolt is recessed in such a way that many socket sets will never be able to access it (which almost certainly is intentional — Verizon probably doesn’t want you messing with this).

However, I dug up an old-school nutdriver, opened the panel and plugged the connector back in (after disconnecting the power and the battery backup). Although this was simple, it’s still going to be beyond the skill sets of most people — and it does point out that FiOS requires a source of power in your house to work properly. Cox Cable does not (although, in all honesty, what’s the difference? Unless you have a battery backup on all of your electronics, if the power goes out, you’re going to be without TV anyway).

There is no way this supply ever should have been installed this way. I just assumed the guy used a stud finder to pick the location for the power supply. He didn’t.

While troubleshooting this problem, I also opened up the exterior Verizon box for the first time — just the ‘user’ panel, not the one that only the techs are supposed to touch. It has a series of troubleshooting LEDs and your basic wired network connector, which I believe is turned off by default.

People have asked me more specifically about quality of Cox vs. Verizon. In the simplest terms, I’d say that either is perfectly fine for Internet access; Verizon is slightly better in terms of video quality BUT has vastly more HD channels, particularly in its movie packages; Verizon is the clear and obvious choice when it comes to audio quality; Verizon’s pay-per-view rental options are enough to make you give up going to the video store entirely (and the quality of the HD rentals are every bit as good as Blu-Ray). And there you go.

ADDENDUM 3/6/10: I’ve written a one-year update of my experiences with FiOS. It’s here.

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