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Putting Verizon's nascent 5G network to the test
It may not quite feel like it, but we’re at the dawn of a new era: 5G is (finally) here, even if in a limited way. Verizon and its competitors have been working hard to beef up backhaul while installing the first wave of 5G cell sites in select markets around the country.
As tech companies are wont to say, it’s early days for 5G. The networks are hardly anywhere, and only a couple of devices can even access and use the networks.
One of those devices is the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. Samsung announced the device back in February, along with the S10e, S10, and S10 Plus. While the other S10 variants have been on sale for several months, Samsung reserved the S10 5G for Verizon’s network kick-off in Chicago. (AT&T will sell the S10 5G later this year.)
Required reading: Sprint 5G: Testing Sprint’s new network in Dallas
Can the experience live up to the marketing hyperbole? We’re here to tell you in our Verizon Wireless 5G hands-on.
Setting the Verizon 5G stage
Before we get caught up in the shock and awe of raw 5G speed, there’s some background worth discussing.
Verizon is relying on mmWave spectrum in the 28GHz band for its 5G service. A massive 400MHz channel sits in Verizon’s 5G band to allow traffic to move along, and it has another 400MHz in the wings. Today’s LTE 4G networks provide only one-quarter of that capacity, and even then only with multiple carrier aggregation tying up smaller channels. AT&T is using the 39GHz band for its high-band mmWave 5G, while Sprint is relying on its 2.5GHz mid-band spectrum, and T-Mobile will initially launch using its 600MHz low-band spectrum later this year. mmWave is a different animal when compared to 2.5GHz or 600MHz, a different animal altogether.
The wavelengths are much smaller and can be redirected or interrupted by just about anything. This makes it more difficult for the phone to talk to the cell site and vice versa. The standards bodies and engineers behind mmWave 5G have drafted incredibly complex algorithms to help phones and cell sites make use of the mishmash of original, bounced, and redirected cell signals.
These algorithms are constantly evolving, according to Mike Haberman, VP of Network Engineering for Verizon, and are what have allowed Verizon to dramatically improve 5G performance in the few weeks since launch. For example, peak download speeds across the network have already doubled thanks to updated algorithms. More importantly, the algorithm updates can be pushed to the devices and cell sites for instant improvements.
Peak download speeds across Verizon's 5G network have already doubled since launch.
In short, this is why our experience testing 5G in Chicago was a bit different from the very first wave of those who tested it on launch day.
Getting geared up
The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is an insanely gorgeous piece of hardware. We gave it an initial look back in February and can say that the final, shipping form is a luxurious bit of kit. The silver model is particularly glamorous. And that 6.7-inch AMOLED. Wow.
The S10 5G is the first smartphone with integrated 5G sold by Verizon. Owners of the Verizon-branded Motorola Moto Z3 and Z4 can augment their devices with 5G service via the 5G Moto Mod if they so desire. The S10 has 5G built in.
Verizon’s 5G service is highly localized in Chicago. The company took us on a walking tour of downtown Chicago and we hit a solid number of 5G nodes in various neighborhoods in the central business district.
Unlike modern cell towers, which stand tall, the 5G nodes are much closer to the ground. They are most often located on lampposts or equivalent poles along the sidewalk.
These are the basic 5G ingredients.
Sprinting here and there
Using the Galaxy S10 5G, I reached a maximum peak download speed of 1.256Gbps. This is about the fastest speed reached by the network to-date, according to Verizon. It’s hard to describe just how quick that is, and what you can do with it.
The best results required standing within about 30 yards of the 5G node.
To put it into some context, I was able to download 50-minute episodes of Stranger Things in about 12 seconds each. A two-hour movie took just 48 seconds to download. PUBG Mobile, all 1.85GB of it, took just 12 seconds to download from the Galaxy App Store. Twelve. Seconds.
These highlights are phenomenal. But like the exciting clips you see on Sports Center every night, there’s a lot of mundane game in between the definitive action shots.
I performed speed tests all over Chicago. The average download speed across my results was 594Mbps, and this more or less concurs with what Verizon is registering on the network.
It’s interesting to compare these results to those generated by Sprint’s brand new 5G network. Sprint says its highest speed to-date is 1.1Gbps, but I never saw anything in person higher than 690Mbps. Moreover, the average speed on Sprint’s network was one-third that of Verizon’s at approximately 190Mbps. The big difference between the two is availability.
In Chicago, I had to have line-of-sight with the 5G nodes in order to get any Ultra Wideband service from Verizon at all. When I say line-of-site, I mean standing within about 30 yards of the node and having a clear view of it. Moving around a corner or ducking into a doorway could easily break the 5G connection entirely. Conversely, I never saw a Sprint 5G cell site at all during my time in Dallas. Entering buildings or traveling in buses and cars had no impact on the availability or speed of Sprint’s 5G service.
Don’t get excited about uploads. There’s no such thing as uploading content via 5G just yet. Instead, Verizon’s 5G devices fall back to the company’s LTE 4G network. This means you can expect average upload speeds of 8Mbps to 15Mbps.
The metrics I saw this week are a snapshot in time. Assessing the first phones on the first networks hardly scratches 5G’s potential. If 5G were merely about speed, this would be a boring story indeed.
Verizon’s Haberman says the company has really only just gotten the ball rolling. Now that the basics are in place, the real innovation can begin. In addition to boosting speeds, Verizon is focusing on densifying its network, reducing latency, and much more. Haberman pointed to use cases such as self-guiding cars.
“Autonomous vehicles are essentially expensive IoT devices right now. Wouldn’t it be cool if the decision-making was done in the cloud, or at the cell site instead of on the car itself?” posed Haberman. “And what if neighborhood cameras in the area were accessible to the network? The vehicle could ‘see’ a real-time feed of other cars approaching the same intersection from multiple angles and decide on its own whether or not to proceed through the intersection.” That’s one 5G vision.
For now, consumers may have a different vision. I’m envisioning the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which is a sultry device with or without 5G. You can grab it from Verizon for a cool $1,299 for 256GB or $1,399 for 512GB.