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Sonic partners with AT&T, works to ramp up speeds

For years, Santa Rosa-based Internet service provider Sonic has positioned itself as an alternative to corporate giants AT&T and Comcast. Its Fusion service - phone service and broadband Internet - came at a competitive price, along with what many viewed as better customer service.

The problem was, Sonic’s Fusion service only worked if you lived close to one of its central offices.

To alleviate that Sonic has taken several steps aimed at both improving and expanding its Fusion options. These include deploying better broadband technology in Sonic’s central offices, as well as partnering with AT&T to offer the telecommunications giant’s fiber-to-the-node, or FTTN, technology.

Sonic will offer the AT&T service under its own brand and with its own customer service.

“Our goal with Fusion is to present a very simple solution,” said Sonic CEO and co-founder Dane Jasper.

Back in the 1990s, DSL was provided out of central offices, a metropolitan hub used to aggregate and direct telephone calls and data traffic onto the telephone network. Today, however, broadband is served from “node cabinets” that are placed in neighborhoods.

“It moves the equipment closer to the house, and so what this means for our customers is much greater reach,” Jasper said.

Historically, Sonic’s Fusion was only available from one of the 200 central offices the company operates in 125 California cities. Customers who lived two miles or more from a central office were out of luck, Jasper said.

Meanwhile, Sonic has upgraded its central office technology from ADSL2+ to VDSL, which can yield Internet speeds of up to 75 megabits per second - triple the speed of the older technology - for customers who are close to the central office.

Sonic’s VDSL protocol was deployed in its central offices beginning last December and is now available through most of the company’s footprint.

Its Fusion service, which is essentially a phone line and broadband service, costs $40 a month before taxes and fees. Sonic has a website algorithm that allows potential customers to determine whether the service is available and what their Internet speeds would be.

John Pinney, a Sonic customer who lives on Claremont Drive near Montgomery Village, has been eagerly awaiting faster service from Sonic. Pinney, whose speeds are currently about 5 megabits per second, said he gets the same message when he enters his address, and several nearby addresses, into the algorithm: “We’re sorry, no service is available - yet!”

Jasper himself looked into Pinney’s case and determined that Sonic offered Claremont Drive residents ADSL2+ up to a certain distance.

“Beyond this range we do not expect performance to meet the long-term need of most customers,” Jasper said in an email. Jasper said that when optimum service is not possible, Sonic won’t offer it.

Where available, the new Sonic service is a good deal, said Pinney. He plans to keep his current Sonic Internet service and AT&T landline and “hopefully AT&T will add a node soon to extend service to this neighborhood.”

Like Pinney, local residents continue to be interested in Sonic service. In the past three weeks since offering faster and more expanded Fusion through Fusion FTTN, daily signups have doubled.

“That’s great news for us and our members,” said Jasper.

Dave Burstein, editor and publisher of Fast Net News and DSL Prime, which tracks the broadband industry, said it’s primarily the big telecommunications companies that are putting FTTN cabinets in the field, because of the huge financial investment it requires.

Burstein called Sonic’s $40 Fusion service “a damn good deal” if it could deliver 25 megabits per second. It could be a better deal than AT&T’s own pricing of its U-Verse service, he said.

Burstein said AT&T offers line speeds of about 25 megabits or higher through its U-Verse service, which he called “decent” for those who don’t do a lot of video downloading. AT&T has put boxes closer to about 30 million homes to get U-Verse speeds.

“You could run three HD TVs and lots more at the same time,” he said. “Just put your address into AT&T’s website and see what they offer you. Then it’s up to you to decide whether you buy from AT&T or one of their resellers like Sonic.”

He said Sonic has long had a reputation for good service and good customer policies.

For most people, cable is the other alternative, said Burstein, adding that he has written DSL industry news since 1999 and currently has cable service. Verizon can’t offer him more than 3 megabits at his office in Manhattan, while Time Warner delivers 50 megabits.

Karl Bode, a freelance writer and editor of DSLReports.com, called Sonic’s business acumen “notable,” as it has been able to survive the dominance of larger ISPs like AT&T.

“That they’ve not only survived but thrived and expanded their network in this current landscape is nothing short of miraculous,” Bode said. “Sonic also deserves a lot of credit for being one of the very few ISPs out there that’s entirely forthright in terms of consumer privacy issues.

Jasper pointed out that when a customer uses Sonic’s Fusion service based on AT&T FTTN, the IP address assigned to the customer and the IP transport is provided by AT&T. That might be a concern for customers who chose Sonic because of its strict privacy policies.

But Jasper said Sonic offers a free virtual private network, or VPN, that creates an encrypted, secure tunnel to Sonic’s network and customers with a Sonic IP address. After that, all Internet use goes by way of that encrypted tunnel and through Sonic.

The one downside, he said, is that the process slows speeds down by 5 percent.

AT&T spokesman Alex Carey said the company could not comment on its business deal with Sonic because of a “customer confidentiality agreement.” Carey did confirm that “AT&T provides some but may not provide all of the services that make up Sonic’s Fusion FTTN.”

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