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Review: Verizon's FiOS Phone-Cable TV-Internet Service

If the installers hadn't almost burned my house down, I'd say Verizon's new cable television and high-speed Internet service was fantastic.

In fact, ever since the smoke cleared, I've enjoyed more than 100 TV channels, a responsive remote and fast Internet connection that rarely falters.

If the installers figure out how to tell where power lines run in a wall, the service is nearly flawless.

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Verizon Communications Inc., for those keeping score, is a telephone company that's been branching out into other things, such as cable TV. Cable companies, meanwhile, are broadening their offerings to include high-speed Internet and telephone service.

Verizon, which serves 28 states and Washington, D.C., is spending $23 billion to make fiber-optic connections — which it calls FiOS — available to 18 million homes by 2010.

By bypassing the old copper phone lines, the company has much more bandwidth available than anyone else. (AT&T Inc. also is upgrading its service with fiber, though the cables do not extend all the way to each home.)

While it's been available where I live for a while, it wasn't until I moved within the Philadelphia suburbs that the company made me a pitch that was too good to refuse: All my telecom services — landline, cell phone, cable and Internet — on one bill.

The package is about $200, $10 a month more than it used to cost me to buy cable from Comcast, and my landline, Internet and wireless services from Verizon or Verizon Wireless.

But I figured that $10 was worth it for faster Internet speeds of up to 5 megabits per second downstream (and 2 Mbps upstream) and 150 free cable channels — dozens more than I was getting from Comcast.

Verizon threw in a voice mail box, caller identification service and unlimited calling with no extra charge.

And, I'll admit, I was more than ready to stick it in Comcast's eye after years of consistent 5 percent annual price hikes, mediocre equipment and a remote that barely worked.

I knew I was taking a risk, but how bad can cable TV delivered by a phone company be? Pretty good, as it turns out.

Though my 26-inch Samsung set couldn't take advantage of the service's high-definition offerings, the standard-definition picture quality was at least as good as offered by Comcast.

Verizon's remote and set-top box provided work amazingly well compared to the Comcast equipment I was using. All the usual channels appear to be there, plus some.

On the sports front, I've gained several new versions of ESPN, I now have the NFL Network, and I didn't lose Comcast SportsNet (the two rivals inked a deal letting Verizon carry CSN, home of many local Phillies, Sixers and Flyers games, last year).

We've also benefited from channel inflation in home improvement and cooking networks, and gained a slew of new nature, science and history-related channels, many of which I'd never heard of.

One, DIY, repeats some of our favorite shows from other networks, letting us catch programs we used to miss. We've also gained children's channels such as Noggin.

On the Internet side the service has been exemplary. Whereas our old DSL modem had to be reset frequently, I've only had to reset our FiOS modem once.

It may be a tad slower than a cable connection, but unless you're downloading gobs of big files, who's the wiser? It's more than fast enough for Webkinz and the occasional cartoon or game.

The landline works and sounds just fine, though it's not your grandfather's phone service — power isn't supplied over the network. Verizon does provide an eight-hour backup battery to help you through blackouts (we've fortunately not experienced any yet).

There was no change to our cell phone service, which we've had through Verizon Wireless for several years now (for the record, the coverage in Bucks County, Pa., is better than Cingular, our previous provider).

One complaint is the lack of documentation. I'm not normally a big manual reader, but a simple channel guide would have been nice (I've since found one online).

And to use the voice mail service that came with the FiOS phone connection, I had to call an operator, then an 800 number, then suffer through several transfers before finding someone who could give me basic instructions (such as which number to dial to retrieve voice mail messages, for instance).

And there is the small matter of installation.

When Verizon runs fiber to your house, the company needs to install a box on an inside wall. It was in drilling through a wall to connect that box to a fiber conduit that our installer hit an electrical wire.

That knocked the power out and left our electrical box — and the front of the house — smoking.

The technicians compounded this error by insisting that we pay for the electrical repairs, then bill them. We'd be reimbursed in 30 days, they assured us.

My wife was having none of that. Verizon's insurance company cut us a check for the $2,650 repair within days.

We got a brand-new electrical box out of the deal, for free. But our electrician tells us ours was not the first botched Verizon installation he's been called out to fix.

For its part, Verizon was very apologetic. That's fine, but I want to know how many other people have had similar installation problems.

Very few, Verizon spokeswoman Sharon Shaffer assured me.

"This particular occurrence and the extent of the damage is rare," Shaffer said.

The technician did apparently get a talking-to.

"The training on installation procedures was reviewed with the technician," Shaffer said.

I'm sure the our incident was rare, and all's well that ends well, as far as I'm concerned.

Now, give me that remote.