I took a spin in a 5G phone.
Well, it wasn't really a phone, but a large van that served as a proxy for a 5G mobile device. I sat in the vehicle, which had Samsung and Verizon logos plastered on the sides and a large, bulky cellular antenna mounted on the roof, as it drove around one of the parking lots at Verizon's campus in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
The windows of the van were covered up, so my attention was forced onto the huge flat-panel display mounted near the front of the passenger area. On the screen was a continuously updating number that showed me the speed of the connection on 5G, industry parlance for the fifth generation of wireless technology.
The drive itself was a little underwhelming. The van never exceeded 10 miles per hour, and without the ability to see outside, I quipped that there might just be a few strong Verizon technicians outside shaking the vehicle to simulate forward motion.
Nevertheless, it was fascinating.
That's because the ride offered a glimpse into the future of wireless networks and the possibilities that open up when those breakneck wireless speeds become broadly available. Just imagine shrinking that van and its antenna down to the size of a device that can fit in your pocket, allowing you to stream ultra-high-definition video without a stutter -- or turning it into a small box that serves as the wireless broadband connection in your home.
The 5G connection maxed out at 3.77 gigabits a second, 377 (yes, 377) times faster than a typical 4G LTE connection and more than three and a half times zippier than Google's already superfast home broadband service, which uses physical fiber-optic lines. At that speed, you could download the entire "Simpsons" series -- nearly 600 high-definition episodes -- in about half an hour.
"It's like the speed of fiber, without the fiber," Roger Gurnani, chief information and technology architect for Verizon, said in an interview earlier this month.
Granted, this was only a trial, and you'll probably never hit that peak speed. But think about the possibilities if Verizon even gets in the ballpark.
On Monday in Barcelona at the Mobile World Congress trade show, Verizon shared details about its field trials in five cities: Euless, Texas, Hillsboro, Oregon, and Piscataway, Bridgewater and Basking Ridge, all in New Jersey. By next year, select customers will be able to try out the service with commercial-grade equipment, Gurnani said. He had told CNET in September that Verizon would begin field trials within the next 12 months.
Earlier this month, AT&T said that it, too, will start 5G trials and possibly offer wireless home broadband service to a limited number of customers in Austin, Texas.
"New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before," John Donovan, chief strategy officer of AT&T, said in a statement. "5G will help make them a reality."
At first glance, the sleepy Basking Ridge community makes for an unlikely test location for tomorrow's wireless network. But it hosts Verizon's sprawling headquarters and it's where CNET got an exclusive early look at the field trial.
Resting on one of the building's balconies are a base station and antenna hooked up to a fiber line. The station, which is a steel cabinet slightly taller than me, broadcasts a 5G signal with a limited range of about 1,000 feet.
Down below in the parking lot, the van drives around as the antenna mounted on its roof picks up the signal in a demonstration of 5G capabilities.
About 300 feet across from the base station, inside an adjacent section of the Verizon building, is another metal cabinet, which houses a second receiver. Its purpose is to pick up the signal and demonstrate that obstructions like trees, glass and walls don't interfere with the connection.
As this is one of the first trials, the deployment is limited to a small area.
Tackling the challenges
There are reasons for the baby steps.
Like any other wireless tech, 5G relies on spectrum, the radio airwaves necessary to ferry that cat video to your phone. In particular, 5G requires high-frequency spectrum, which offers a fat pipe for high speeds but has very limited range. Today's network runs on lower frequency spectrum, which can travel long distances and penetrate walls.
Higher frequency spectrum requires many more cellular sites on rooftops or street lamps. In addition, even simple obstructions can disrupt the signal.
"Going through windows is fine, but a second or third wall is a problem," said Woojune Kim, vice president of Samsung's next-generation network business.
The receiver in the building is angled so it has a line of sight to the base station, though a brick wall partly blocks the path, demonstrating that some obstructions are fine. The screen flashes consistently high speeds until I wave my hand in front of the receiver, causing the numbers to drop.
To compensate, partners such as Samsung must use tricks like "beam forming," where the base station constantly fires off multiple signals in different directions, giving the receiver an opportunity to catch the optimal one and switch to it for better reception. The companies have also looked at how to bounce signals off walls to improve the coverage.
Verizon has already invested in building a network with a dense mix of cell sites closer to its customers, according to Adam Koeppe, vice president of technology planning.
As for making sure you get a 5G signal indoors? "We have to solve for that with our design," Koeppe said.
Translation: We haven't figured it out yet.
The long game
Another complication is getting the necessary spectrum to power 5G. Verizon is operating on experimental licenses but will eventually need to buy a large swath to cover the nation. (AT&T has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for its own licenses.)
Gurnani would say only that he was encouraged by the FCC's aggressive stance on freeing up spectrum for 5G.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and other officials from the agency were scheduled to check out the field test a day after my visit.
It will likely take awhile before any carrier gets its hands on enough spectrum to power a nationwide network. That's why many industry players don't believe 5G will be a reality for the average Joe until 2020. Some criticize Verizon for unnecessarily building hype for something that's so far away.
"Let's not mislead people into thinking that there will be 5G smartphones in the next couple of years," T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in an interview.
Verizon, meanwhile, is trying everything it can to move up the timetable.
"It's time to go to 5G," Gurnani said, "and we have a sense of urgency."
Correction, 6:45 a.m. PT: This story originally misstated the speed at which the 5G maxed out. The correct speed was 3.77 gigabits per second.
CNET's Marguerite Reardon contributed to this story.
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