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Here's the Real Truth About Verizon's 5G Network

It's very early for Verizon's 5G network. Probably too early. I spent about six hours testing out Big Red's brand-new 5G network on day two (Friday, April 5) or its launch in Chicago. It's very small and not very reliable. But it's a beginning

Here's the basic good news: Across 291 tests, 64 of which were performed on 5G and the rest on 4G, the Moto Z3 phone with its new 5G Moto Mod got better average download speeds than an LG V40 being tested on 4G in the same place. I saw 600Mbps peaks on the 5G device, at several different cell sites, compared with 400Mbps peaks on the 4G device. That's a 50 percent improvement already. Hooray! Right?

 5G vs. 4G Speeds in Chicago

This is going to get detailed and technical. If you want buying advice, the advice is, don't buy, at least in April or 201

9. Verizon's 5G network is a few cell sites running early firmware that lacks key features. Software upgrades and further buildouts will turn this network into something you'll want, but you don't want it now.

It's unique Verizon to launch something before it's time, but the carrier seems to have been in a race with South Korea to be able to announce the availability of the world's first 5G-capable phone. Verizon originally scheduled its launch for April 11, but moved it back to April 5 and then April 4, seemingly as it heard more about the Korean carriers' plans. As Verizon's Moto Z3 On April 3 and the Samsung Samsung Galaxy S10 5G went on sale April 5, Verizon gets bragging rights.

I can't help but think this is one of the rare cases where the marketers won out over the engineers at Verizon. Lots of things are missing from this network. Would it have hurt Verizon in the long haul to hold back to mid-May, when the Samsung phone is launching in the US? I don't think it would have any terms of actual sales, and it would have been a more verizon-worthy launch. But it would not have been possible to "First !!! 111!" like some YouTube commenter hopped up on Red Bull.

This story is going to mention "future software updates" as the solution for nearly everything. Because of the final revision of the 5G standard only came out in December, the carriers' infrastructure providers just haven't been able to debug and turn on all of the features they've been promising yet. The good news is, a lot of this will come as over-the-air updates.

We will head out to Chicago again in late May, and possibly again in July, to see how things are developing.

 Modding Up </h2>
<p> Right Now, the only way to get on Verizon's 5G network is by attaching a $ 350 Moto Mod to your $ 480 Moto Z3 phone. Evan Blass, trustworthy leaker, says the first integrated phone on the Galaxy S10 5G, <a href= coming on May 16 .

The Z3 plus is more than the S10 5G, and less powerful than a smartphone. But they're also going to be much cheaper. At list price, you can get 5G with the Moto Z3 for $ 830. The price for the Galaxy S10 5G has not been announced, but it will be higher than the Galaxy S10 +, which starts at $ 999. I'm expecting $ 1,249.

We've reviewed the Z3 and discussed the Mod before. When you snap it on, it takes over the phone's Modem functions, and reports its battery and connection status. Some have called this "slapping a Wi-Fi hotspot on a smartphone," which is just correct. For now, it doesn't work as a Wi-Fi hotspot; That's coming in a future software update (the Mod currently works as a USB modem, with a USB-C port on the bottom). In any case, the hotspot mode uses 802.11ac, not 802.11ax, which means the Wi-Fi hotspot may end up slower than the 5G connection.

The Mod's secret sauce is the USB 3 pogo pin connector on the back of the phone, which can transfer data to 5Gbps, faster than any early-generation 5G network. Motorola wouldn't confirm that the Mod would work with future phones, but it strongly implied it; it's also working to make it work with the existing Moto Z2 line. So this one Mod could enable an entire lineup of early Verizon 5G phones.

Mod battery life isn't great. Its runs off its own 2,000mAh battery. The phone doesn't charge, and when the Mod's battery runs dead, you're back in 4G mode. I started using my mod at 9:30 in the morning and it was dead at 2:30 in the afternoon. I was pumping a speed test through it every two minutes and making a location request every minute, with two half-hour breaks, so call that four and a half hours of constant transmission time and location requests. You are obviously not going to be transmitting that much, and location requests burn battery, but that still feels short. Verizon and Motorola say that battery life will increase as the network improves, which is true about cellular devices in general; Verizon's service plan is simple: If you are on one of the current unlimited plans, it's $ 10 more for unlimited, never-de-prioritized 5G data. 5G data will also be free for the first three months because the network is not really ready.

Ugh, the Flicker

Now let's talk about the flicker.

The Moto Mod only shows its "5G UWB" icon when it's 5G data transfer, 5G service is available, so it's very difficult to know where you have 5G coverage. Background processes move data, so you'll see that 5G icon flicker on sometimes when you're in a 5G coverage area, but it won't be a reliable indicator of coverage the way all other network status icons are.

To test speeds and try out scope coverage, I used a custom also field test app to run speed tests every two minutes, interleaved, on the Motorola phone and on a separate 4G LG V40 phone (note: Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, PCMag.com's parent company). I also had an automated process capturing a screen shot every minute and recording the location, when catching 5G icon flickered on.

Even with all that running, the icon would drop to 4G when I was almost certainly on 5G (like when I had not moved from a previous 5G test and was getting about the same speed). Verizon needs to change this icon behavior so that it says 5G when 5G signal is available. The good news is, it could do that in a software update

 4G vs 5G on two phones
Left: 5G on a Moto Z3. Right: 4G, probably with LAA, on a LG V40.

Plays: Just Getting Started

Verizon is using a form of 5G called millimeter wave (mmWave) that promises extremely high speeds but has very short range from towers. You can also drop off quickly as you walk away from a cell site, or if you go indoors. Currently, the mmWave cell sites can use up to 400MHz or spectrum. Verizon says it has 800MHz or more of spectrum in many areas, and it will be able to use when it gets the appropriate software update. That will dramatically increase speeds.

The advantage of using mmWave is that, eventually, it's going to enable huge speeds. Ericsson, Verizon's infrastructure vendor in Chicago, made some grand promises in a 2018 white paper. "An NR 200MHz TDD system at 26GHz … can provide very good DL coverage to outdoor users for example, 50-60 percent approaching 1Gbps. With larger spectrum allocations such as 400MHz, it is possible to reach multi-gbps speeds, "the company says. Verizon is, in fact, using 400MHz in Chicago, and it has beefy fiber backhaul.

In real life, I saw a maximum of 600Mbps when in theory, using 400MHz or spectrum should be up to 2.4Gbps on mmWave 5G NR . That's all down to, guess what? Early software

"Quite frankly, it's going to increase rapidly," Verizon network engineering VP Mike Haberman told me

It's also important to note that not everyone is using mmWave, or exclusively using mmWave. Both AT&T and T-Mobile will be mixing mmWave with low-band 5G, which will probably have coverage and drop-off trends a lot more like LTE, and speeds 30 to 50 percent faster than LTE. Sprint is using mid-band 5G, which will have coverage similar to Sprint's 4G network and speeds in the 400 to 600Mbps range, according to the carrier.

At pretty much every 5G NR site I found, I got between 500 to 600Mbps down when near the site. That would drop quickly with distance, as I'll get to below.

This scatter chart is a lot of fun, but take it with a grain of salt. It shows the download speed of every 5G test I took, in chronological order. It's not actually that useful, but it's cool to look at. The trend between tests 10 and 30 shows me walking up to a site, walking away, back to it again, and then away in a different direction. That cluster of high speeds on the right is a consistent 5G coverage area in the West Loop; the little group of low speeds in the middle of it is when i walked into a stone building. All 5G Tests, Visualized ” border=”0″ class=”” src=”https://assets.pcmag.com/media/images/639998-all-5g-tests-visualized.jpg?thumb=y&width=980&height=373″/>

One thing to keep an eye on right now is not the maximum speeds, but the minimum speeds. There are some applications currently requiring 1Gbps on a mobile device. But there are a lot of applications (like video streaming) that prefer 6Mbps over 2Mbps. LTE tends to have very low floors when it's good, it's very good, but when it's bad, it's rotten. My early 5G testing shows that 5G already has higher floors than 4G does. If that holds, then even slow 5G speeds will be a significant improvement over tough LTE situations —provided there coverage . LTE Minimum Speeds ” border=”0″ class=”” src=”https://assets.pcmag.com/media/images/639992-5g-vs-lte-minimum-speeds.jpg?thumb=y&width=980&height=309″/>

Uploads and latency were much more disappointing. 5G networks are supposed to have latency below 10ms. But latency, averaging 25.7ms, was no better than LTE latency, at 25.1ms. Upload speeds, averaging 19Mbps, were lower than the average 4G upload speeds on our V40 phone, at 42Mbps.

Verizon gave an explanation you're going to get pretty familiar with: 5G uploads aren't enabled yet. Those are LTE uploads. They're waiting for a software update. Latency will also be better with time, the carrier said.

You have to understand, there are ways in which LTE is more advanced than 5G NR, although that will change. LTE has advanced in the complexity of its encoding (called QAM, or quadrature amplitude modulation) and in the number of antennas it can use at once (called MIMO, or multiple-in, multiple-out). Current LTE networks support 4×4 MIMO and 256 QAM, four layers of data and eight bits per symbol.

At the moment, 5G NR supports 2×2 MIMO and 64 QAM, or two layers and six bits per symbol. But the technology supports 4×4 MIMO on handsets and even massive MIMO at the base station level, as well as more efficient types or coding. We just have to wait for devices and capabilities to evolve.

We saw this change with LTE too. When LTE networks launched in 2011, they are always faster than AT & T's and T-Mobile's 3.5G HSPA networks, which caused a whole mess when AT&T and T-Mobile decided to declare HSPA as 4G. But LTE had a lot more room to grow than HSPA did. While standards continue to evolve HSPA + to a point where in theory it could achieve 336Mbps (although US carriers never went faster than the 42Mbps version), Qualcomm has 2.4Gbps LTE support now.

This evolution is going to apply to AT & T's, T -Mobile's, and Verizon's millimeter-wave networks. They all have the same versions of the same Ericsson software. It may not apply to Sprint, which is using Nokia's massive MIMO base stations on lower-band spectrum;

Coverage: Pretty Limited

Verizon says it covers the Loop, West Loop, and north of the loop in Chicago, basically up to North Avenue. I walked around for three hours and found that coverage is very spotty and doesn't extend north of Chicago Avenue. But I also found that they looked like they hadn't been turned on yet, or where I suspect Verizon is about to install 5G equipment there's a string of towers along North Avenue, every few blocks from Sedgwick to the lake, that look almost ready to go, and my 5G indicator briefly flickered on at the corner of North and LaSalle. It didn't stick reliably enough to be captured by my coverage routine or for me to run a speed test. I'm guessing that's one of a group of sites that just aren't quite yet.

"I have sites that are ready to go, and there are more sites that are out there, deployed and ready to go," Haberman said.

I found some coverage in the Loop, lots in the West Loop, growing coverage in the River North area, and nothing north of that in Old Town.

 Verizon 4G / 5G Walk

] And here's where I saw 5G:

 Verizon 5G Only Coverage

Now, here's where I think I saw active 5G cell sites. The farthest north icon might be a block off. I also probably missed and few; I'm obviously missing one at Chicago and LaSalle and another at Clark and Lake, I just didn't eyeball them and didn't have time to go back and check. Verizon is definitely aiming at great density here, with a site every block or two. Note how they are in the West Loop —i t's every block. I got consistent 5G coverage on the West Loop, but I was never a block from a cell site.

 Verizon 5G Cell Sightings Range: Not Quite There Yet

Verizon Customs Its sites have about 800 feet of range. I saw more than 300 feet of effective range, with speeds below LTE levels beyond, even though my 5G indicator would dutifully flicker on until about 450 feet. When modifying a 4G connection would be better than a 5G, so it hangs on 5G for life even if it's just out of a few megabits. A phone should probably prefer a good lower-connection over a poor-higher-one. LTE at Distance from Site ” border=”0″ class=”” src=”https://assets.pcmag.com/media/images/640088-5g-vs-lte-at-distance-from-site.jpg?thumb=y&width=980&height=423″/>

The chart above shows the speeds measured at 50-foot intervals walking south along Michigan Avenue from a cell site. I think what we're seeing on the LTE line is not LTE as most people know it, but LAA, the short-range LTE that uses Wi-Fi airwaves and typically drops off after 200 feet. Note that the 5G site has pretty much the same curve as the LAA site does. No, I don't know what happened with the LTE phone at 350 feet

 5G Speed ​​with Distance From Site

This chart shows the speed drop-offs at two different 5G sites, hitting one from two different angles. The gray line is walking south along Michigan Avenue from a site, keeping line of sight the whole time with only clear air between us. I got to about 350 feet before speeds got pretty low.

But what's up with those other two lines? With the orange line, there was an elevated train between the 50 and 100 foot marks. That seemed to really interrupt the signal, which was then slow but stable for the next 200 feet.

The yellow line is the same cell site as the gray one, but walking at a right angle to the other, down a narrow street between large stone buildings.

Verizon and everyone else in the industry tell me that these sort of drop-offs will be fixed by better beam-forming and beaming, coming, you guessed it, in a future software update.

"Verification and shaping are still coming along," Verizon's Haberman said. "Those could be dramatically different over the next couple of months; those cell edges are going to change."

Now before you start screaming, "My suburb / exurb / rural area has no use for sites with only 800 feet of range ! " and "They're not going to put a cell site on every block in MY town!" You are correct, and they will not. This is a very center-city setup, and the carriers are already setting up these build-outs to handle heavy LTE traffic.

The unanswered question is whether millimeter wave will work in any other kind of environment. Verizon says it will, and that with appropriate beam steering it's up to 3,000 feet of range.

Hitting the Wall

 5G Inside vs. But outside in Chicago
5G speeds compared, indoor vs. outdoor

I got to check out another disturbing quality of a millimeter wave at a Starbucks on Jefferson Street in the West Loop. Stand under the cell site, you get 600Mbps down. Go into the Starbucks, through glass, and that's cut to 218Mbps. Go around the corner and enter into the lobby of a building that is just facing the site, and you're down to 41.5 Mbps. Lower frequency bands do not have this behavior

 5G vs. LTE Building Penetration

I'm comfortable saying that you'll get no millimeter wave signal worthy of salt if you're more than one windowed wall away from line of sight to the cell site. That's really bad. Verizon says that performance will get considerably better with future software updates that include better beam-forming and beaming.

Are These Sites Ugly?

In terms of being ugly, you have to understand that 5G just adds two panels to an existing LTE small cell. Here is what LTE small cell looks like, with no 5G on it:

 Verizon Chicago site without 5G
A Verizon cell site on North Avenue that has 5G yet, but probably will soon.

Here's a close-up on a 5G cell site. You can't see much difference. If you are arguing against small cells, you lost the battle in a few years ago during the LTE era. If you are just starting to count on small cells now because they are unattractive, not after two years, well … think about that.

 Verizon 5G cell site
This is what a Verizon cell site with a 5G panel looks like.

Here's a 5G site looks like in urban context, in the West Loop:
 Verizon 5G West Loop Site

Here's someone whose

Verizon's 5G Report Card

We've been promised a lot of features coming with 5G. Low latency, for example, is supposed to be a key, transformative part of the new system, but it just isn't here yet. Verizon uses how it has 800MHz or spectrum in a lot of cities, but it can't use all that spectrum yet. On the other hand, up to a few weeks ago, the base stations could only handle 100MHz or spectrum.

Here's a quick "report card" of some of the key features I did and didn't see in Verizon's network:

 5G Report Card

I think this network will improve materially during summer school. Before 5G became a crazed race to turn on a network as early in the spring as possible, it sounded like things would really start to come together mid-summer. For now, Verizon, Motorola, and Ericsson have a lot of studying to do if they want to live up to what they've been promising in their glitzy trade show presentations.

It's About the Long Haul

To understand why Verizon is investing why everyone is investing, really it helps to look back at 4G speed growth over the past years. We've been tracking 4G speeds in the US and Canada since 2011 (in the US) and 2013 (in Canada). Canadian networks are better than US networks, on average, so you can see both growth curves. 5G, on day one, is averaging 215Mbps down. If it follows the North American 4G speed growth curves, we should have an average of 327 to 495Mbps down by 2021, and 1.2 to 1.5Gbps down by 2025. That's an average, mind you; many speeds will be higher. This is dependent on a lot of factors, of course, the central one being our government releasing a lot more spectrum for 5G over the next few years.

 5G Download as Verizon 4G Speed ​​Growth
 5G Speeds as Function of Canadian 4G

Really, this is only the beginning. Verizon pledges to turn on 30 cities before the end of the year. AT&T currently claims to have 12 cities working with a hotspot, which I'll check out soon. Sprint and T-Mobile are probably launching in May and June.

I've been talking to various players in the industry, and they're counting on new software is arriving for the 5G base stations every week. Things are moving extremely fast. By the time you read this, they may have changed. We're going to be driving all around the country this spring and summer checking these things out, and will report our findings in June.

For more now, see our Race to 5G feature.

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