Goodbye Cable TV, Hello Fiber-Optic Broadband Television

"You've been with us since 1994," the Cablevision operator said, querulously.

"Uh-huh," I replied.

"We hate to lose such a longtime customer," she continued.

She sounded nice, so I assured her that it wasn't her fault that I was dropping Cablevision for my TV service in favor of Verizon's brand new FiOS TV fiber-optic TV service. We chatted a bit longer and then, as I requested, she terminated my cable service.

No going back now.

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Not that I would want to go back. Making the move to fiber TV is one of the smartest I've made in my technical life.

It was not the easiest decision to make, and getting fiber TV into my home was a bit more complicated than I anticipated.

Of course, I'd been warned — by Verizon, no less.

I'd made the decision to go all-fiber a few weeks earlier, and during the call, the Verizon rep told me the installation could take 6 hours.

• Click here to see a slideshow of the installation process.

The first part of it, during which they ran fiber from the pole to my house, had taken only around 4 hours, so I figured this was an exaggeration.

Even so, I set aside a whole day and worked at home, so I could be there if the Verizon tech guy needed me — and to supervise and document the job.

It was after noon when the technician finally arrived. Apparently, he'd been double-booked and had just completed an installation in a neighboring town (demand for FiOS TV in my area is incredibly high).

I let him in and gave him the grand tour, showing him all the TVs that would be getting boxes (without a box, you get only 49 or so channels), the FiOS termination box on the outside of my house, and the D-Link router and uninterruptible power supply the last technician had installed. The tech looked pleased with what he saw.

When it was time to test the analog and digital video signals coming out of my fiber termination box, though, the system failed the digital test.

A few more tests — revealing more line errors — and phone calls to Verizon headquarters later, and the tech made the seemingly radical decision to replace the termination box. The thing was barely six months old, and already it was being put out to pasture.

But before I could get all weepy, the tech unpacked a spanking-new, smaller and more color-coordinated white box, complete with a modular, upgradeable interior. Nice.

Problem solved. It was time to run a coax line. I asked the tech if he needed to drill a second hole to run the coax out from the box into my house.

"Not really," he said, and he went on to tell me that they could use my existing coax network.

I then watched as the tech disconnected the Cablevision coax line from a small link that ran from the utility pole to my house.

He capped the end going back to the pole and took the now-exposed end of the cable that ran into my house, replaced the connector, and screwed it on to the coax-out port in the new termination box.

I chuckled a bit to myself. After all these years of the phone company having to lease out and let competitors use its phone lines and utility poles, Verizon was using a competitor's wiring (and the work they did to run it into my house). Sorry, Cablevision.

A Messy Nest of Wires

The job was cruising along. In just a few hours, we had a live FiOS TV connection.

Now all the tech had to do was test my in-house coax lines to make sure they were all up to snuff.

The seemingly minor task was nearly my Waterloo. The more the tech looked, the more he — and I — discovered the truly Byzantine nature of my coax network.

There were more than half a dozen splitters throughout my home, and the wiring ranged from new and pristine to something resembling half-chewed spaghetti that's been run over by a tractor trailer.

The tech tested the signal coming through some of my cable feeds. He looked at me and with a slow shake of the head gave me the bad news: Verizon wants these installations to be trouble-free. He'd have to replace some of the wiring and remove or replace many of these splitters.

Over the next 3 hours, he re-ran two dozen or so feet of cabling and bypassed nearly half of the splitters. He also replaced several with new ones and replaced the connectors on the coax wiring he left.

I pitched in where I could, helping him feed wires and even removing part of my basement's drop ceiling to help him run a new line.

Finally, the tech was satisfied with the line readings he was getting at all critical ports. It was time to install the new router.

Easily three times the size of the D-Link Wireless-G router Verizon provided during the first install, the new MOCA-ready (Multimedia Over Coax Alliance) Actiontec M1424WR router adds a coax-out line.

When I saw it integrated into my home television network, I worried that if the router went off-line or was accidentally turned off, I'd lose television reception.

But I had misinterpreted the router's role. It simply took video-on-demand and the programming-guide information from the Web and passed it via coax out to my new television "network."

We have three main televisions in my house: one in the guest room, one in my bedroom, and my new HDTV in the den.

I'd ordered two standard boxes (at $3.95 a month) for the CRTs and one HD DVR (at $12.95 a month) for the HD set. The tech unpacked all three boxes and started attaching them to each of my sets.

Before installing each one, he measured the line signal. If he was happy with the strength, he'd install the box and move on.

In the den, he found the signal was so strong that he had to put a 3-decibel attenuator on the line. Apparently, this isn't unusual for fiber TV; a too-powerful, undamped signal can actually burn out a fiber box.

With all the boxes hooked up, the Verizon tech contacted the home office to activate all of them. Without activation, the boxes go up to only channel 49.

HD Content

It was 7:10 p.m. when the tech finally left my home. By his reckoning, this was about an average installation — neither the easiest nor the worst. He had certainly been in people's homes longer and later.

The crazy thing is that the installation and equipment (aside from renting the boxes) is 100 percent free. Don't you just love it when a company tries to make a good impression?

Though I took a quick look at the reception coming in to the standard TVs (which is excellent, by the way), I was most interested in what my HD content would look like. This was the first time I'd had an all-digital feed coming into my set. The Motorola box thankfully, came with HDMI out.

Standard TV stations looked good. Then I got into the "800s", where live all the HD channels, including broadcast networks and HD-only stations such as HDNet.

The pictures were stunning. The audio was crystal-clear. Oh yes, this was why I bought an HD set.

Gone were the anomalies (pixelation, frozen images and the like) I'd been seeing on the HD digital channels Cablevision had somehow crammed onto its analog lines (my digital tuner was able to pick them up).

My HD DVR is also quite a wonder. It lets me control, record and play back HD content, and I can easily watch one show while recording another — all with one coax line in.

The box has a fast 7,200-rpm, 160 GB hard drive, but HD content can eat it up with just 20 hours of programming.

This means I'll have to be more judicious in my full-season recording than I've been with my 80-hour TiVo Series2.

For now, content stored on the HD DVR cannot be viewed on other connected FiOS TV boxes. Verizon's standard DVR does offer this capability.

I did make a couple of alterations after the tech left. I added back in one high-quality splitter in the den, so that I could still use my old TiVo and even do a boxless feed directly into my HD set coax-in line. Both get up to only channel 49, but that's enough for some of the shows I want to record and play back.

Though the purchase of my first HD set made going digital a necessity, I could have gone with Cablevision's IO Digital Services.

Even with the boxes, it's roughly the same price as FiOS, but as I told the Cablevision operator, there was a stronger reason for making the switch:

"Cablevision has — for too long — treated us like the monopolistic service provider it is. I always knew I would jump at the first sign of competition. People need choices. Competition is good," I told her.

"Yes, it is," she agreed.

"It can only make you better."

"That's true," she added, sounding less than convinced.

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.