SHIFT: Verizon's FiOS and Sprint's WiMax get set to fight over the future of the Internet

Each week Adam Frucci takes a closer look at the latest gadget buzz in his column, Shift.

Image by Matt Krueger

There are two new ways to connect to the Internet coming in the near future (if not here already), each with giant electronics and telecommunications companies throwing billions of dollars behind them hoping to get you to switch to their service. First is FiOS, the network of fiber-optic cables currently being laid down by Verizon. Racing to manually hook up to as many households as possible, Verizon is spending over $20 billion laying down new cables all across the country. Once the network is complete, it hopes to deliver high-speed Internet connections along with phone and TV service to media-hungry consumers.

Next up is WiMax, a new wireless standard and infrastructure being set up by Sprint. Backed by Intel, Motorola, and Samsung, the network Sprint is setting up promises to provide broadband-speed wireless connectivity to the entire nation, cutting out the need for finding Wi-Fi hotspots and setting up routers. With billions of dollars at stake, which side will win over consumers? It all depends on how each plays its cards now, and how much their big-talking parents can live up to their own hype.

In This Corner…
On paper, Sprint's WiMax is clearly the better option for the future of Internet connectivity. The idea of never having to worry about setting up a modem or a router, of being able to get a quality, reliable connection to the Internet from anywhere would totally revolutionize mobile technology. However, the reality is that it's unlikely that the service will live up to expectations outside of major metropolitan areas. After all, if I'm still dealing with spotty cell-phone service when I visit my family in New Hampshire, what are the chances of wireless Internet being reliable up there? But if it proves to provide seriously fast and reliable service when you're near a node, WiMax could become the way people get online, at least in cities.

Verizon's fiber-optic network won't have the type of reliability issues that plague wireless systems — as long as it's actually available, which is where its problems arise. Verizon is spending billions to manually wire every home in America, but there's no way it'll be able to reach them all. In New York, the company is already running into problems with older buildings, as it needs the landlord's permission to install new equipment in the basements of apartment buildings, and it doesn't always get it. However, if you do happen to live in a building that Verizon has wired up, you'll get absolutely blazing speeds for an unheard-of price.

Currently Verizon is charging $50 for a 15-Mbps (megabits per second) FiOS connection (to compare, Verizon's DSL packages offer 3 Mbps for $30). However, you won't get that sweet FiOS speed unless you're plugged into a wall, since if you use Wi-Fi, the connection will be filtered through whatever Wi-Fi router you have. But for people who download huge files, Verizon's FiOS service will be heavenly.

Everybody Wins?
With so much money behind both new technologies, the chances of either one being destroyed by the other are slim to none. That goes double for Verizon, since it's sneaking phone and TV packages into its FiOS service, and each is sure to find a good number of eager customers. However, as soon as Sprint gets its WiMax network set up in major metropolitan areas (sometime in 2008, supposedly), most other ISPs might have to say goodbye to a huge chunk of their customer base. Many Internet users don't really need the blazing speeds that FiOS promises for most of what they do, and if they can get broadband speeds easily from anywhere via the air, they'll sign on right away.

In areas where people have an option, WiMax is sure to beat out FiOS (assuming WiMax lives up to its promises), but there will no doubt be serious gamers and file sharing addicts who will choose FiOS for it's blazing speed. In any case, both options are significantly better than what customers have to choose from now, and both promise to seriously alter the way we connect to the Internet.