I've spent the last 18 hours in Chicago, not celebrating sausages or pizzeria pizza, but kicking the tires on Verin's newly launched 5G mobile network. Yesterday, the leading US airline told it had enlightened its 5G service in "selected areas of Chicago and Minneapolis" and that "for the first time ever, customers can access a commercial 5G network with the world's first commercially available 5G activated smartphone. "The launch came a week earlier than planned. Verizon has not said why it suddenly moved up, but operators in South Korea joined forces with 5G yesterday, so it might be that the company would not be beaten by its global peers.
I know you want speed tests, so to get started, yes, Verin's 5G data rate is pretty fast compared to what your smartphone can handle right now. I hit 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 very hard to come by. When you find it, you've basically lived where you should see what it is capable of.
Let's cover what you need if you want to experience 5G data rates. Verizon customers must have both medium-sized Motorola Moto Z3 that I reviewed last year, plus 5G Moto Mod that went on sale yesterday. It costs extra $ 200 and includes four millimeter wave antenna arrays for optimal 5G reception. There is also a 2000mAh battery in the Moto Mod to store the phone from drainage due to all the radios.
The Z3 and Moto Mod together are still less than what you pay for the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S1
The coverage is so extremely sparse that for right now I want to be careful of anyone who buys the 5G Moto Mod and pays Verizon an extra $ 10 each month to receive 5G. Even early adopters would be wise to continue to wait until the rollout makes greater 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 West Loop and South Loop, around landmarks such as Union Station, Willis Tower, The Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park and The Chicago Theater. 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 are directly in conflict with this touristy "map" where you can get 5G. I visited both the Chicago Theater and the Chicago Art Institute and there was no 5G signal to be found in either place. The same goes for Millennium Park. On the prayer I just became ordinary old LTE.
I covered a lot of ground around Loop, and yes, sometimes the 5G UWB network indicator will appear instead of Verizon's well-known LTE logo. But it would often turn back and forth – as shown below – apparently unable to hold onto a 5G connection. This never caused data interruptions or problems with apps, but there was a common occurrence around the areas Verizon said had 5G access.
Can we also take a second to discuss the huge size of the 5G status line icon? See how far the vibration icon is pushed over! I know we're all excited about this 5G track, but you can definitely shrink it on future phones, Verizon / Moto.
When you actually find 5G, it's extremely fast
In areas with a reliable 5G signal, data rates were much faster than what Verizon LTE networks typically deliver. The difference between 4G LTE and 5G is amply clear. With the 5G Moto Mod connected to the Z3, I averaged between 400 and nearly 600 Mbps, which is about 10 times faster than what my iPhone XS Max – right next to the test phone – pulled down from Verinson's network. It is faster than many broadband connections. It is 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 hotspot over a USB cable to share the blurry download speeds with your laptop.
However, upload speeds were slower than I 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 doesn't bother me like next. Ping for each test varied between 20 and 30 milliseconds, according to Ookla Speedtest. Verizon ideally wants to get that figure to simple digits for 5G using issues like cloud gaming and virtual reality where the elimination of latency is critical.
But let me come back to cover. It feels frustrating at random in Chicago. It is centered around city attractions and high density areas, but it is inconsistent even then. 5G is there for a block and gone the next. You want to beat the 5G lottery on one street, 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 sites had one of Verin's 5G nodes nearby, which is how the carrier emits millimeter wave (mmW) radio waves that allow for the blazing download speeds.
Proximity is important here. If you see one of these nodes, you're probably within the 5G range. But go far enough away and you will return 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 when I was a few steps inside, it was gone. This weakness is something Verinson's competitors are aware of.
Hei @Verizon ! Great job at launching your mmW 5G treasure hunt in Minneapolis and Chicago! To be clear, there is something you need:
– An additional $ 10 per month
– Modded Moto Z3
– A non-existent 5G map
– No walls, trees, buildings, windows
– LOTS of luck
– Neville (@NevilleRay) April 3, 2019
I'm sure Verinson's 5G network will grow significantly in the coverage over the next few months. The company has said it will launch mobile 5G in 30 cities this year. The pressure will be at once AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint join in, and it will only push Verizon to ramp up things faster. But this first launch in Chicago – I can't speak to the Minneapolis side – feels rushed. Until there are several nodes set up, anyone who buys 5G Moto Mod will feel duped when they realize how few and far between 5G zones are over this city. Verizon needs to act quickly to make things feel a little more constant. On day one is the opposite.
LTE started small and spread in a way similar to this. I remember 4G's slow rollout to nationwide coverage, and it seems we are in for what struck again. We are used to being blanketed with fast data in 2019, and no one likes to wait. It is unreasonable to expect that 5G will only appear and replace LTE in any major city, but it would be nice to have at least one neighborhood or more blocked radius where you could go to enjoy it. This is not quite at that level yet.
So I'm curious why Verizon felt compelled to go now instead of April 11 as originally planned. Would it have been smoother if the carrier had waited a week? Would I actually have received 5G reception at any of the sites Verizon said I should? Who knows.
For now, I don't think anyone should add to their monthly bill to join Verizon's first 5G. Download speeds are definitely a leap forward, and Motorola's Moto Mod does what its name promises. (It will even upgrade the Moto Z3's LTE speeds outside of 5G coverage areas), but until you can walk some city blocks and maintain a 5G signal, what's the point?
Photograph by Chris Welch / The Verge