Thursday at 10 a.m., I trudged through a cold drizzle, coffee clutched desperately in hand, for one reason: Garrett's cheddar and caramel popcorn. Just kidding. I came to Chicago to test Verizon's new 5G network the day after it launched in parts of downtown Chicago and Minneapolis. After using it for six solid hours on the Moto Z3 and its 5G Moto Mod, I walked away with a clearer understanding of the biggest issues facing Verizon and other carriers as the next-generation data networks begin to roll out.
I'd like to say that using Verizon's 5G was a mind-blowing experience, with download speeds beyond my wildest imagination. I wish I could tell you that I downloaded entire albums of music and streamed video instantly. Unfortunately, all I can honestly say after a long day is that I found it confusing. Frustrating. Absolutely insane. The new network isn't a silver bullet that will magically make your data dreams come true. It faces growing pains, and we're going to have to grow right along with it.
At times, the 5G speeds recorded by the Speedtest.net benchmarking test got us the 600-plus megabits per second download speeds Verizon has promised. Other times it was closer to 200Mbps, and still other times, the phone professed to be on 5G, but acted a lot like 4G. I had a battalion of upload and download tests I was going to try Thursday in downtown Chicago, but it was so hard to keep a 5G connection long enough to run the most basic tests, I had to throw those plans out the window.
Now playing: Watch this: We tested Verizon's new 5G network
Verizon and Motorola are well aware of these issues. I spent hours with PR reps from both companies, and kept in close contact with them throughout the day. They both acknowledged the start-up issues and said that engineers were following up with trouble locations.
That's not a great start, and it indicates that something isn't working well — the network, the phone, the Moto Mod attachment or the way they all come together. It's an awkward place to be for a network boasting to be the world's first live 5G network.
Verizon jumped the gun by turning on 5G earlier than its April 11 target, a move that underscores the carrier's belief that acting quickly and aggressively in 5G will give its network, already the largest in the US, a first-mover advantage. 5G, the next-generation wireless technology, is widely championed as the cure to laggy data connections and slow phone download speeds.
5G is positioned to revolutionize the industry, increase data connections from 10 to 100 times the current 4G speeds and enable a host of new uses, like distance surgery and smart traffic lights that talk to one another to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
That's not what I saw. But to be fair, neither was I expecting mind-blowing speeds. 5G is a brand-new technology, prone to pitfalls, stumbling blocks and rough edges. Verizon has been very clear about the limited coverage areas, and has promised that it'll cover parts of 30 cities with 5G speeds by the end of 2019. While 5G comes online for the first time in one city, network engineers will also expand service in, say, Chicago.
5G speeds are also expected to easily top 4G, gaining momentum as carriers build out their 5G networks over time. I spent the day all over downtown Chicago to test real-life 5G speeds, far from carefully constructed demos. Here's what happened: the good, the bad and the aggravating.
A word on 5G before we begin
5G isn't just one thing. There are multiple approaches. Sub-6. Millimeter wave (mmWave). AT&T has even been accused of (and sued for) "fake 5G." With this new world of 5G comes a cosmos of new jargon.
For example, Verizon's 5G network uses the 28GHz and 39GHz bands for mmWave to bring 1GHz of bandwidth on average nationally. If that doesn't mean much to you, it might help to get up to date with our 5G primer.
A word on the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod
We also need to talk about this Moto Z3 for a minute. It's a midrange device that is able to channel Verizon's 5G network through the power of a chunky lip sticking out the top and the internal modem inside the 5G Moto Mod, which is sold separately.
The Mod has four mmWave antennas and infrared sensors that signal the right antenna to kick into gear. Say you're blocking three with your hands, the fourth will take over.
The Moto Z3 is on sale now at $240 (usually $480); the Moto Mod is also on sale now at $200 (usually $350), and you have to have a Z3 on your account to buy it. Verizon 5G service is a $10 premium over the regular plan, but your first three months are free.
Road to testing hell is paved with good intentions
The day began cheerily enough, with a visit to Verizon's big store on Michigan Avenue. Just after its 10 a.m. opening, workers on ladders were just beginning to unpeel giant "5G" stickers on the windows. Three digital screens exclaimed, "It's here! It's here! It's here!"
Verizon's friendly PR reps handed out test phones and pointed to a large black rectangle affixed to a wall near the entrance — this was the 5G "node," a part of the network that delivers 5G speeds to the store. If your 5G device is within line of sight, it should receive Verizon's fastest data speeds. Verizon says to expect "typical speeds of 450Mbps, with peak speeds of nearly 1Gbps, and latency less than 30 milliseconds."
It was immediately clear this wouldn't be the case. Even carefully positioned a few feet away from the 5G node, the large on-screen icon exclaiming Verizon's 5G network toggled back and forth from 4G to 5G. It felt like all I had to do was move the phone or look at it funny and the 5G UWB (Ultra Wideband) insignia would flicker away. After two hours, we had run maybe one clean Speedtest.net app side by side with the Galaxy S10 Plus.
At the same time we were trying our luck upstairs, a "SWAT team" of troubleshooting engineers from Verizon, Motorola, Qualcomm (the chipmaker) and Ericsson (which makes the networking infrastructure gear) swarmed the store. Apparently the node was acting up. Time to move on.
Fast benchmarking speeds but real-world failures
The second and third stops were better, at least as far as the Speedtest.net benchmarking app went. The second was across the street from the Merchant Mart, which is home to Motorola's headquarters. It was standing outside in a valet lot in the rain that we were able to see those blazing 5G download speeds, at least some of the time.
A couple times I saw theoretical download speeds kissing 600Mbps. Other times, the download would start strong, the phone would flicker to show the 4G logo, and speeds would plummet. And still other times, the 5G logo was on, but speeds fell in between the two.
Real world test 1: Downloading a large file
It's here outside Motorola's HQ that I was finally able to try my first real-world test: downloading the game PUBG. It's a large, 1.81GB file, which took roughly 5 minutes, 45 seconds to download with the 5G icon going strong. Then I uninstalled the app, took off the Mod to ensure 4G LTE speeds only, reinstalled it over data and… it took exactly the same time. That was unexpected, especially since reviewers from other outlets experienced faster download speeds.
Uplink is the same on 5G and 4G, Verizon said, at least for now.
Real world test 2: Downloading a Netflix show
The preeminent scenario for the 5G dream is being able to download entire seasons of Netflix from the time you walk down the airplane gangplank to the time you settle into your seat. Ditto downloading a big presentation or a bunch of photos before you're forced to go offline.
This would be the perfect test for our third location, the intersection of Michigan and Monroe outside the famous Art Institute of Chicago. Once again standing directly below the node (outdoors, they're attached to street lights), we ran a few speed tests for a baseline, and then attempted to download a 50-minute episode of Planet Earth II from Netflix.
With the 5G logo on full display, we turned on the stopwatch using another phone and watched the progress pie chart inch forward a sliver, and then another, and then… nothing. After several more attempts, we tried it again in 4G, with the Moto Mod taken off. The result was identical: a sliver of progress, followed by the same stalling for minutes. After 20 minutes in the rain, it was time to try our luck at real-world location No. 3.
Real-world test… oh, forget it
Our final test site was a total bust. A few blocks from the famous Chicago Theater, I stood beneath the 5G node and tried every reboot, cycling and reattachment trick for a good 5 minutes. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still nothing happened. I reported it to Verizon's SWAT team and called it a day.
What happened to all the other tests I planned?
Like I said earlier, I started the day fresh-faced and caffeinated with a plan to throw loads of comparison speed tests, lots of downloads and gameplay at the Moto Z3.
The problem is that it took too long to lock onto a strong enough 5G network to complete one task that there wasn't time for the rest, especially if we wanted to check out four different locations around the city — and we did, to get a sense of Verizon's real-world deployment of 5G coverage.
Now playing: Watch this: 5G phone speeds will give you whiplash
If 5G repeatedly cuts out and cycling airplane mode, disconnecting and reconnecting the Moto Mod and even rebooting the phone won't reliably bring it back again, how can you accurately assess the impact of downloading large files or play resource-heavy games? You can't. Those deeperRead More – Source