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Verizon’s 5G network is blazing fast, but it barely exists

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Finding 5G coverage in Chicago, one of two launch cities, is extremely difficult

I’ve spent the past 18 hours in Chicago not feasting on hot dogs or deep-dish pizza, but kicking the tires on Verizon’s just-launched 5G mobile network. Yesterday, the leading US carrier triumphantly announced the debut of 5G service in “select areas of Chicago and Minneapolis,” and said that “for the first time ever, customers can access a commercial 5G network with the world’s first commercially available 5G-enabled smartphone.” Verizon welcoming customers onto its 5G network came a week earlier than initially planned. Verizon hasn’t said why it abruptly moved things up, but carriers in South Korea also went live with 5G yesterday, so it’s possible the company didn’t want to get beat by its global peers.

I know you want speed tests, so to get started, yes, Verizon’s 5G data speeds are quite fast compared to what your smartphone can handle right now. I’m hitting between 400 and 600 Mbps on downloads. I can also tell you that, at least in Chicago, this feels like a premature launch, and 5G can be awfully hard to come by. When you do find it, you've basically got to stay where you are to see what it's capable of.

Let’s cover what you need if you want to experience 5G data speeds. Verizon customers must have both the midrange Motorola Moto Z3 that I reviewed last year, plus the 5G Moto Mod that went on sale yesterday. It costs an extra $200 and contains four millimeter wave antenna arrays for optimal 5G reception. There’s also a 2,000mAh battery in the Moto Mod to save your phone from draining because of all those radios.

The Z3 and Moto Mod together are still less than what you’ll pay for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10 5G whenever that also hits Verizon, but it’s still a big investment for a network that, as I’ve come to learn by walking the streets here, is barely up and running.

Coverage is so extremely sparse that, for right now, I’d caution anyone against buying the 5G Moto Mod and paying Verizon an extra $10 every month to receive 5G. Even early adopters would be wise to keep waiting until the rollout makes more substantial progress over the coming weeks and months.

Verizon has said that its 5G Ultra Wideband service is available in Chicago as follows:

In Chicago, 5G coverage is concentrated in areas of the West Loop and the South Loop, around landmarks like Union Station, Willis Tower, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park and The Chicago Theatre. Customers also have 5G Ultra Wideband service in the Verizon store on The Magnificent Mile and throughout The Gold Coast, Old Town and River North.

My tests last night directly conflict with this touristy “map” of where you can get 5G. I visited both the Chicago Theatre and Chicago Art Institute, and there was no 5G signal to be found at either location. The same goes for Millennium Park. At the Bean, I was just getting regular old LTE.

No 5G here.

I covered a lot of ground around the Loop, and, yes, occasionally the 5G UWB network indicator would pop up in place of Verizon’s familiar LTE logo. But it would often flip back and forth — as seen below — seemingly unable to comfortably hold on to a 5G connection. This never caused any data interruptions or problems with apps, but it was a regular occurrence around the areas that Verizon said had 5G access.

Also, can we take a second to discuss the enormous size of that 5G status bar icon? Look how far the vibration icon gets pushed over! I know we’re all excited about this 5G stuff, but you can definitely shrink that down on future phones, Verizon / Moto.

When you actually find 5G, it’s extremely fast

In areas with a reliable 5G signal, the data speeds were much quicker than what Verizon’s LTE network typically delivers. The difference between 4G LTE and 5G is abundantly clear. With the 5G Moto Mod attached to the Z3, I averaged between 400 and nearly 600 Mbps, which is roughly 10 times faster than what my iPhone XS Max — right next to the test phone — was pulling down from Verizon’s network. That’s faster than many home broadband connections. It’s theoretically enough to download a movie from Netflix or Amazon Prime Video in seconds instead of minutes. The 5G Moto Mod can be used as a hot spot over a USB cable if you want to share those blistering download rates with your laptop.

A sample of speed tests conducted with the 5G Moto Mod in areas with 5G Ultra Wideband coverage.

However, the upload rates were slower than I’d expect from 5G. Some Motorola employees told me they’ve seen it closer to 60 Mbps during their own tests, which is better, but it still doesn’t strike me as very next-gen. The ping for each test varied between 20 and 30 milliseconds, according to Ookla Speedtest. Verizon ideally wants to get that figure down to single digits for 5G use cases like cloud gaming and virtual reality where eliminating latency is critical.

But let me get back to coverage. It feels frustratingly random in Chicago. It’s centered around city attractions and high-density areas, but it’s inconsistent even at that. 5G is there for one block and gone the next. You’ll hit the 5G lottery on one street corner and then go several without the same luck. What kind of scavenger hunt is this?

The two best areas for service I found were a street right next to Motorola’s offices (no surprise there) and at the iconic Union Station. Both locations had one of Verizon’s 5G nodes nearby, which is how the carrier sends out the millimeter wave (mmW) radio waves that allow for those blazing download speeds.

These nodes are the telltale sign that you’re in an area with Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband coverage.

Proximity really matters here. If you can see one of these nodes, you’re probably within 5G range. But walk far enough away, and you’ll fall back to LTE. Building penetration is also a challenge for millimeter wave. The 5G signal was able to pass through the bottom floor of Motorola’s office building if I was near the door or a window, but once I was a few steps inside, it was gone. This weakness is something that Verizon’s competitors are aware of.

Why now?

I’m sure Verizon’s 5G network will grow significantly in coverage area over the next few months. The company has said it aims to launch mobile 5G in 30 cities this year. The pressure will be on once AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint join in, and that will only push Verizon to ramp things up faster. But this initial launch in Chicago — I can’t speak to the Minneapolis side — feels rushed. Until there are more nodes put up, anyone buying the 5G Moto Mod is going to feel duped when they realize how few and far between 5G zones are across this city. Verizon needs to act fast to make things feel a little more constant. On day one, it’s the opposite.

LTE started off small and scattered in a manner very similar to this. I remember 4G’s slow rollout to nationwide coverage, and it seems we’re in for that slog again. We’re used to being blanketed with fast data in 2019, and no one likes waiting. It's unreasonable to expect 5G to just show up and replace LTE in any major city, but it'd be nice to have at least a neighborhood or several-block radius where you could go to enjoy it. This isn't quite at that level yet.

So I’m curious about why Verizon felt compelled to go now instead of on April 11th as originally planned. Would things have been smoother if the carrier had waited a week? Would I have actually gotten 5G reception at some of the places Verizon said I was supposed to? Who knows.

For now, I don’t think anyone should be adding onto their monthly bill to participate in Verizon’s first steps of 5G. The download speeds are definitely a leap forward, and Motorola’s Moto Mod does what its name promises. (It will even upgrade your Moto Z3’s LTE speeds outside of 5G coverage areas), but until you can walk a few city blocks and maintain a 5G signal, what’s the point?

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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