Monday, March 24, 2014

An in-depth review of Google Fiber's free service, with pictures

We had Google Fiber installed a couple months ago (Feb 2014). It was activated on the 25th. Previously, we relied on Veracity which, unfortunately, shared the connection with the whole building of condos.

Problems without Google Fiber

There are a few network switches in our basement parking area which feed each apartment with ethernet cables. Those switches fail on occasion.

What's worse, and kind of hilarious, is that if one resident plugged their router in wrong (by inserting the WAN cable into a LAN port on the router), it brought down the Internet for the whole building, because those switches thought the router was the gateway to the WAN.

Fortunately, tracking them down isn't too hard because they still use the default username and password and I can see which devices are connected, and their computers often have their name.

The nice thing is that a dedicated fiber line to each apartment prevents this kind of chaos.

The installation

After signing up, they were very autonomous about installing. I had to do nothing, except when they finished. First, these guys show up at your house:

And they leave you a nice little note:

Then a few days later, a pull string appears. It's remarkably tiny (they later run the fiber cable and put a protective sleeve over it):

Then finally the jack is mounted (read below for more about this):

The router you get is real nice, but has a small fan (read below for more about this, too):

The back is elegant and simple:

The speed tests

Before Google Fiber

With Google Fiber

Since we're poor, our apartment is on the free plan. It's advertised as 5 Mpbs down reliably and consistently, but the upload isn't ever really mentioned. Here's why...

Fortunately, our apartment still has both lines active because the HOA hasn't turned off Veracity service. I can use either.

However: when others in my apartment are downloading something, I get lower speeds... I guess that's how it is, but it would be nice if it was 5 Mbps per client, not total.

They also have a special page, also powered by Ookla, for doing a speed test. Their page considers whether you're connected wirelessly or hard-wired:

But again, when I'm the only one using it, the 5 Mbps down is very fluid and reliable. The upload speed is disappointing, however. 1 Mbps seems a bit too throttled, even for free.

The wall jack

They install a wall jack which, kind of oddly, has to be powered by a power outlet. The nice thing is you get a power strip/surge protector for free, but it's kind of strange that a wall jack has to be plugged in for power. I guess they do this to speed up installations in bulk, which is why they can offer this for free (or cheap if your HOA doesn't pay it for you).

The light doubles as kind of a night-light, since it's so bright. Blue indicates normal operation, but it can also be red. I came home one night after everyone was gone for the day and it was flashing red. I pulled out my phone and loaded a page. After a few seconds, the light turned blue, but I had to reload the page on my phone before it came in successfully. I wonder if the unit hibernated with little or no activity.

They also provide a short CAT6 cable to plug into their router.

The router

Google gives you a sleek black router that supports 2.4 and 5 GHz b/g/n WiFi. It has a small fan, so it makes a quiet hum which you can hear if you're close. And of course, this hardware all supports IPv6.

So how do you manage this thing? Let's take a look.

Managing your Fiber network

By default, Google provides access to very basic management of your network box from anywhere, just by logging into "My Fiber" and clicking on "My Network". You there have the simple options of changing your network name and wireless password, or I think you can turn wireless off, too. That's about it. But it's cool that you can do that from anywhere, by default, without needing to know how to administer a router.

But, of course, the first thing I did was turn on Advanced Mode:

With this mode, you log in using a local IP address and it's very much like a typical router administration interface. Notice at the bottom of that screen they tell you the password so you can log in as admin.

A more advanced look at the admin interface

Their advanced interface isn't quite as pretty, but it's one of the most functional ones I've seen. 

The login is always admin, and a good password:

The landing page tells you some useful high-level info about the state of the network and its clients:
I have blurred out a few things in these screenshots in case they are potentially personally-identifiable (I err on the side of caution). And since my roommates share this network, I've blurred most of their info.

You can examine and manage the wireless radio:

You can see and manage how IP addresses are being assigned to devices. Notice there's also a Dynamic DNS option (not previewed here), which after I fiddled with is, it pretty modern and useful:

 Firewall settings include port forwarding (not pictured)...

 ... and connection details... holy moly, it's an IPv6 heaven:
There's also a summary of the system:
And of the WAN specifically (you'll see that the Fiber link is down; this is because we aren't subscribed to the gigabit plan):

Interesting and proper, I suppose, that the gigabit adapter is a different piece of hardware. It gets its own MAC address.

Conclusion: Yay or Nay?

Politics and business preferences aside, Google Fiber has been a good experience so far. Their support staff is great, their service centers are helpful and educational, their Fiberspace (demo/retail store) is fun, it comes with IPv6 support, and what can I say -- I have free Internet.

Overall perceived download times are about as fast as they were before, maybe slightly faster. But the connection is definitely more reliable. Yes, it is slower when my roommates use it: multiple users have a more terse, adverse effect on speed. But even when the speed is slow, I can usually stream videos without delay, and in HD. (There's exceptions to this regularly, but not nearly as severe or common as it was before.)

So yes, overall I think it is an improvement. Surely the gigabit plan is great, too... though, a note: you have to plug into the router to get that whole gigabit speed, and you have to be using a CAT6 cable, and your computer has to be able to support the throughput. The wireless-N band, if you choose to use that, will still be blazing fast (about 250-350 Mbps), but you won't get true gigabit if you stay wireless.

It was a big deal when Google Fiber came to town. Provo is just eating this up. There are flags and banners on the street lights downtown, and the mayor, city council, and other organizations have been superb in working with them. (Except BYU, but they don't need Google Fiber anyway. On campus I get about a 40 Mbps connection, even with hundreds of students around.)

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