comcast vs fios
Comcast and FiOS go toe-to-toe for service provider dollars.

If you’re anything like me, the arrival of the monthly cable bill often sends you into an uncontrollable rage. After all those service interruptions, inconsistent download speeds, and myriad trips to reset the router at 1AM, a bill that seems to get higher every month just doesn’t seem to make sense. But what are the other options? Since most of us aren’t willing to give up cable TV programming just yet, the pickins’ are slim – for most of us it comes down to a choice between Comcast and rival Verizon Fios. I’ve thought about switching to Fios more than once, but just couldn’t find a good enough reason to deal with the hassle. If you’re facing a similar dilemma, hopefully this might help. Here’s a closer look at both service providers and how they stack up on price, quality, and availability.

The Basics

Before we dig into specifics, there are a few things you should know about each network in order to make an informed decision. Comcast is the country’s largest cable service provider, headquartered in Philadelphia. Fios is a bundled service offered by Verizon that’s been available in some places since 2004. The biggest difference between the two service provides lies in the cable used to bring the data into your home or office. While Comcast uses fiber-optic cables to deliver its content to to the “head-end” node of the system, it still relies on copper coaxial cable to get the signal the last mile or so to your house. FiOS, by contrast, bills itself as an “end-to-end” fiber optic network, meaning that the signal is transmitted via fiber optic cable all the way to your home and only uses coaxial cable to go the last few feet to your actual TV set or modem. All other things equal, this makes for a faster, more robust connection.

The Reality

Until recently, it’s likely that FiOS was unavailable at your location. For those of us in the Boston area, Comcast has had a stranglehold on our cable and internet service for a while now, and it’s nary a customer I run into that hasn’t had issues with interruption of service, laggard internet connectivity, and customer service. According to a February article published by Boston.com, Comcast had 1.6 million subscribers in Massachusetts, compared to 226,000 for FiOS. While FiOS may seem like an obvious choice, it may still not be available where you live, especially if you’re shacked up in Boston proper. The hitch with FiOS is that it’s hard to tell. When entering my North End address to look at the possible service options, I was told that ‘FiOS isn’t available at your address,’ but was then presented with a whole host of options for cable and internet service that sure seemed to be FiOS products to me. During a live chat with a representative, I was informed that I was, in fact, browsing traditional Verizon services that would be delivered via DSL in the case of internet service, and TV service provided by DirecTV. Neither of these services would, in fact, be delivered over the FiOS network. Comcast, by contrast, is available everywhere.

The Pricing

Often the subject of much jostling, the pricing of cable and internet service is purposefully obscured by companies: rolled up in bundles, tagged with rebates, and littered with contract plays, introductory pricing, and hidden installation fees. For the sake of argument, I’ve compared bundles from both providers that jive with what most of us seem to want – digital cable with one HD box, and high-speed internet with a single modem connection. While it’s still nearly impossible to compare services, here’s the basic math we came up with. We’re also assuming that the shift to one or the other means a full installation. To try to even out the installation fees and temporary deals, we calculated the total cost of both options over 18 months.

Comcast offers a ‘Double Play’ package with broadband internet, 80 channels, and 6 months of free HBO. Add to that a monthly leasing fee for the HD box and the modem, alongside a one-time $50 installation fee, and the costs start to climb. The total package runs at $74.99 for the first six months, not including lease fees, and jumps to $130 after that deluding grace period. Total 18 month cost with Comcast: $2,305.60.

If you’re lucky enough to be able to count FiOS as an option, you can get a 15mbps internet connection and 180+ channels, including 40+ in HD, for $69.99 for the first 6 months and $79.99 for months 7-12. There are no activation or installation fees, and FiOS supplies a modem for no additional charge. The HD box runs about $10 a month. Customers can choose to lock in the $79.99 rate for two years by signing a contract, or they can choose to take their changes after twelve months and hope the rates don’t go up. A customer service representative I spoke with said that price hikes aren’t calculated on a customer-by-customer basis, so whether or not the cost goes up is largely a matter of luck. Hmm. We’ll assume that we’re lucky, and the $79.99 holds for months 6-18. Total 18 month cost with FiOS: $1559.82.

The Verdict

It’s hard to imagine that FiOS could actually be that much less expensive than Comcast, but after a detailed call with a Verizon representative I found it fairly hard to poke holes in the overall pricing package. The problem is clearly the availability issue – if you can’t get it installed, the lower cost means virtually nothing. For those of us in Boston, the venerable Comcast psuedo-monoply (RCN is an option for some)  means we’ll likely be stuck with what we’ve got. Bottom line? FiOS is probably a better experience, and certainly offers more attractive pricing schedules than Comcast, but it’s all dependent on whether the fiber network has yet to reach your locale. According to the representative I spoke with, FiOS has no immediate plans to extend the network into Boston, citing the huge infrastructure requirements and large amount of underground utility work that needs to be undertaken to bring fiber optics to our 400 year-old city. In the meantime, it looks we’ll be swallowing our Comcast bills for some time to come.

Who’s your cable provider? If FiOS was available in Boston, would you switch? Let us know in the comments.