It was a bit earlier than scheduled, but Verizon switched on parts of its 5G network today, debuting in “select areas” of Minneapolis and Chicago. Every carrier out there likes to slice and dice definitions to have the “First 5G” everything, but in terms of using a real, mmWave 5G signal and something approximating a 5G smartphone, Verizon has made the most progress yet in getting a 5G ecosystem up and running.
5G is still in its very early stages, with access in only a few cities and almost zero device support. So it’s been hard to know what 5G will really be like in the real world. Verizon spokesperson David Weissmann shared the best look yet at 5G on Twitter, where he showed a real-life 5G speed test, running on a real smartphone, getting data from a real 5G tower. Specifically Weissmann was out in Minneapolis, pulled out his Verizon™ Moto Z3 phone with the Moto 5G Mod attached, and loaded up the Ookla Speedtest.net app. Behold his speed test:
Thrilled to be in Minneapolis as @verizon 5G UWB makes history!
Speed test here in front of US Bank Stadium
— David Weissmann (@djweissmann) April 3, 2019
Weissmann’s speed test ended with a blazing-fast 762Mbps down and a 19ms ping (the video does not show upload speeds). Unless you are rocking gigabit fiber Internet at home, this is probably much faster than your home Internet connection. Ookla’s latest aggregate speed reports peg the average US mobile download speed at 27Mbps, while the average fixed broadband download in the United States is at 96Mbps.
Qualcomm’s current 5G modem has a theoretically max speed of 5Gbps, but of course nothing is going to hit the theoretical maximum. Carriers are happy to crow about 5G rollouts and upcoming devices, but it’s been rare to see actual numbers attached to 5G. Weissmann’s test is the closest we’ve come so far to seeing what real 5G performance is like, and today’s press release from Verizon claims “early customers in Chicago and Minneapolis should expect typical download speeds of 450Mbps, with peak speeds of nearly 1Gbps, and latency less than 30 milliseconds.”
The latency here isn’t great compared to the previous promises of 5G. Verizon’s Home 5G Internet supposedly has 4-8ms latency, while for mobile Verizon is only promising around 30ms (and showing 19ms in the speed test). According to testing by OpenSignal, 4G LTE latency is usually around 54-64ms, so while this is a bit of an improvement, it’s not quite as fast as we were expecting.
Verizon’s ideal circumstances
Now for the list of many caveats with this video and with 5G in general. Weissmann’s test—which was probably pre-approved by Verizon—is being run under ideal circumstances. First, he is standing basically next to a 5G tower with a clear line of sight on a sunny day. Verizon’s 5G equipment is actually visible in the frame of the video—it’s all those boxes and antennas glommed onto the post lamp on the left. 5G’s real problems come in range and penetration, so if you were indoors—or on the other side of a building, or if there was a tree in the way, or if you were further away from the tower—performance would be significantly worse. 5G even has problems with the weather, so on a rainy or foggy day, performance will suffer. 5G is all about building a network in the slice of spectrum we haven’t used for other radio signals yet, and the reason this spectrum is available is because the performance characteristics are very challenging.
Second big caveat: there’s a good chance Weissmann was the only person on Earth using Verizon’s 5G network at the time of this speed test. His own tweet refers to the test as “historic,” and we’ve got to guess the user base with 5G Verizon hardware active the very instant the 5G network went live was approaching “one person.” With more people online, the network will be slower.
Third big caveat: 5G hardware. 5G smartphones are going to be awful for the first year, as first-generation 5G modems and antennas take up a lot more space and power than our refined, well-worn 4G technology. That’s going to impact phone design and battery life negatively.
Weissmann’s phone—the Moto Z3 with the 5G MotoMod—has a good chance of being the “Worst 5G Smartphone of all time.” The 5G MotoMod takes an old smartphone, the Moto Z3, and adds 5G compatibility to it through Motorola’s clip-on modular system. Thanks to the state of 5G hardware, though, the 5G MotoMod is almost an entire new smartphone that you’re clipping onto the back of your old smartphone. The 5G MotoMod has an entire extra smartphone SoC inside of it, the Snapdragon 855. That’s along with a 5G modem, its own 2000mAh battery (because 5G needs a lot of power), and a whole heap of 5G antennas. If you could run apps on it, the MotoMod would be way faster than the Snapdragon 835-powered Moto Z3.
Still, for something in a smartphone form factor, the Moto Z3 with the 5G backpack is the best we can do right now. The first fully-integrated 5G smartphone should be 5G version of the Samsung Galaxy S10, which is due out this month in South Korea.
Despite all the caveats, this feels like a big step in the wait for 5G. We just need way more coverage, more mature 5G hardware, and more 5G smartphones. Even then, the shaky performance characteristics of 5G make us wonder if any of this is actually worth it. In perfect conditions, it is pretty fast though!