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Verizon's 5G network launch was rocky at best, but it has a plan

Verizon is hungry to win you over to its 5G model, whatever it takes.

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Verizon's new 5G network is capable of pretty impressive speeds -- if you're lucky enough to get them.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This week I had the privilege of being one of the first journalists to test Verizon's first mobile 5G network, which launched in Chicago and Minneapolis on Wednesday. Although Verizon's 5G launch revealed deep issues that the carrier will need to address, the ability of 5G technology to profoundly change the way we use our phones is still just as relevant today as it was before Verizon's launch -- and the carrier knows it. Verizon also knows that after selling you on 5G in general, it has to get to you before AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint do.

5G promises exceedingly fast download speeds and low latency, or lagginess, connecting to a data network. Beyond cell phone use, industries as wide-ranging as city planning, manufacturing and medicine will all be able to tap into 5G's enormous bandwidth to let machines almost instantly communicate with each other. Even getting off on the wrong foot, 5G's ascendancy as the 4G's eventual replacement is a fact, not a fad.

"We're not merely relabeling a technology ... [5G] is meaningful," said Mike Haberman, Verizon's VP of network engineering, who was introduced to me on the phone as "Mr. 5G." 

Now playing: Watch this: We tested Verizon's new 5G network
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"This will change the way people work, this will change the way businesses can be efficient. This will change education," Haberman said. 

As wonderful as the 5G future sounds, the first stirrings of our 5G present was confusing, frustrating and disappointing as the lightning-fast speeds on some benchmarking tests failed to translate into real gains when downloading large app and video files. 

Verizon's first and right now only 5G phone, the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod, also appeared unable to lock onto and maintain a 5G connection, flickering often to a 4G icon. And when the battery on the Moto Mod I was using completely drained, my 5G cut out too, without me even realizing it. 

Verizon (and Motorola) understand these issues -- I kept close contact with them all day -- and acknowledge that there's work to do.

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Verizon's in the early stages of building out its coverage -- and its signage.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

"In a perfect world, the consumer should see no difference in how they use the phone," said Doug Michau, Motorola's head of product operations for North America, acknowledging the side-step other reviewers and I had to take to latch onto 5G signal by toggling airplane mode. 

"If you're out of range of coverage, [the phone] should switch over to LTE," he said.

Despite my loud complaints, early network bobbles don't seem to faze Verizon. The wireless provider wants to move swiftly and aggressively to build out its 5G network as quickly and robustly as it can. Mistakes will be made. Improvements will be made. Verizon is playing the long game when it comes to 5G. 

ReadGalaxy S10 5G and Verizon's 5G launch get up in your face with next-gen speeds

5G speeds are bound to get much faster

Verizon has publicly stated that its first 5G customers should expect typical speeds in the 450 megabits per second range, with peak speeds up to 1 gigabit per second down. 

"This is the first iteration. 450Mbps is the conservative number. 600 to 700Mbps is what they've seen in the market," Haberman said. And it's true. In my tests, the Speedtest.net benchmarking app clocked download speeds up to 634Mbps. Haberman says that's just the beginning.

"These crazy speeds you're going to see right now are going to get markedly better this year," Haberman said. "This is just the start."

Now playing: Watch this: 5G phone speeds will give you whiplash
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Verizon is currently using half its available wireless spectrum, which means that speeds themselves can get faster still. On average, Verizon will have 1GHz of bandwidth available in many markets. Currently, the network technology can't take advantage of all that spectrum, but by the end of 2019, it will. 

Verizon's plan to build out its 5G network goes beyond the spectrum, too. The way that carriers architect their networks also plays a role, according to Haberman. The type of 5G that Verizon uses, mmWave (that's millimeter wave) technology, uses higher frequency waves, which have the effect of keeping antennas small. 

You can pack more antennas into a smaller space, which will then allow Verizon to use a technique for delivering 5G data called beam-forming, beam-shaping or beam-steering, which purposefully directs the signal, rather than "spray" energy around the area. This is expected to make 5G coverage more efficient than 4G coverage, which should give you stronger 5G signal. 

ReadMotorola defends Mod attachment as the best 5G platform. I disagree

Why low latency is so important

Apart from faster download speeds, low latency is the other often-cited benefit to 5G. That's crucial when it comes to real-world projects like AR and VR, graphics-heavy streaming games, remote surgery and crystal clear video calls.

"4G doesn't do well with AR/VR. If you don't have the latency of 20 millisecond, you get sick. Your mind just can't deal with it," Haberman said, adding that while Verizon has promised latency of 30 milliseconds, Verizon is seeing 5G devices connect to its network in 19 milliseconds.

The 5G build-out will look like this

Verizon has said it will roll out 5G to 30 cities in 2019, but it will also continue to expand 5G on existing networks like Chicago and Minneapolis. Verizon uses decentralized teams so that different markets can focus on their local footprints. 

"You'll see expansion across the board. We're very bullish on 5G technology," Haberman said, pointing out that the carrier will put its 5G nodes on existing towers and target densely populated areas, like major venues.

And if you don't live in an urban center? The timeline is murkier. Verizon's "Mr. 5G" hinted that some plans in the works can accelerate 5G adoption in more rural areas.

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Data speeds from early benchmarking tests on Verizon's 5G network.

Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

At some point, Verizon will convert some of its 4G network into a 5G-only network. Some carriers are already doing this, for example, beefing up 4G speeds to make them "LTE Advanced." Verizon said it wants to wait for people to start signing up for 5G before doing this, so it doesn't take 4G spectrum away from those existing customers.

And when people do start using 5G, that's when Haberman says 4G speeds will also improve. Customers who upgrade will use more 5G spectrum, which should in theory free up more 4G capacity, so there will be less congestion and better speeds.

"We saw the same thing when we deployed LTE," said Haberman, a 29-year Verizon veteran who oversaw the network's launch of CDMA, EVDO and LTE, adding that for 5G customers, "The device will make the decision on 4G or 5G. The user has to do nothing."

Haberman also highlighted the importance, however, of keeping 4G alive: "LTE has a lot of runway ahead of itself, so you're going to continue to see us deploy. This tech isn't going away in a number of years."

Verizon taunts AT&T's 5G E and T-Mobile

Verizon's Haberman didn't shy away from talking about AT&T, its biggest rival. AT&T's recently launched 5G E, or 5G Evolution, network has riled customers and carriers alike, who have called it "fake 5G" and nothing more than a marketing stunt.

"5GE is LTE Advanced. And [for] a carrier like us who has the most LTE Advanced features deployed ... it's a marketing game," he said. 

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When 5G is unavailable, your phone will automatically fall back on 4G.

Derek Poore/CNET

"AT&T is trying to catch up in the deployment of LTE advanced feature, giving the impression that the network is speeding up compared to themselves ... The same thing that's been available for years." 

AT&T isn't having any of it.

"Our 5G standards based mobile network commercially launched in December of 2018," said an AT&T spokesperson, pointing to a tweet from Assistant Vice President Jim Greer of a speed test pulling down over 1Gbps on its mobile 5G network (not 5G E). Ookla, which makes the Speedtest.net app, also named AT&T the fastest US network for all network types on Wednesday, the day of Verizon's 5G launch, based on speeds recorded over the first quarter of 2019. 

"I think [Verizon's] spokesperson is trying to muddy the waters," AT&T's spokesperson continued in an email. "They can complain about marketing all they want (you might ask them about the removal of network claims from theirs), but the tests are clear, it is a different experience for our customers. That's exactly why we employ the word 'evolution,' to make clear that our 5G Evolution is a step in our path to 5G."

Haberman didn't mince words when it comes to T-Mobile, either, stating that T-Mobile's plan to build out 5G at lower frequencies, say 600MHz, misses the benefits of beam-forming and taking advantage of the massive bandwidth that 5G enables. 

"Your capacity gains, your throughputs are not game-changing. One would argue it's the same as LTE Advanced. You do get some latency benefits," Haberman conceded. "You're not hitting the criteria of 5G. You're getting rid of two to three of the criteria."

 A T-Mobile spokesperson shot back:

Verizon's plan is to build 5G For The Few with mmWave spectrum that will never scale beyond tiny hotspots of outdoor coverage in dense urban areas. That's why they won't publish a coverage map, yet they're happy to charge customers an extra $10 a month for something they may never find. mmWave spectrum provides massive capacity, but over a tiny footprint -- and it can't go through things like windows and walls. It's physics. We've calculated what it would take for Verizon to build enough cell sites to provide nationwide 5G coverage with mmWave -- $1.5 trillion.

But, low-band spectrum -- which provides the wide area coverage necessary to reach every American nationwide -- doesn't have depth of capacity.

...That's why New T-Mobile's plan to build 5G For All uses a combination of all spectrum bands.

Sprint's CTO, John Saw, also piled on.

"Early testing results seem to show the coverage limitations of millimeter waves. We wish Verizon well but looks like they will need many more sites to achieve a more robust 5G footprint," he said in an email, adding that Sprint's future launch using 2.5 GHz spectrum will focus on a wider coverage swath.

"We'll offer 5G coverage ranging from about 20 square miles across downtown Chicago, to approximately 230 square miles spanning the greater Dallas Fort Worth area, for a total initial 5G coverage footprint of more than 1,000 square miles across all nine of our launch cities," Saw said.

Verizon's smack talk is confident, but remember, too, that it isn't building 5G out of the goodness of its corporate heart. There's also the extra profit that 5G can bring, to the tune of $10 more per month per line. That's $120 more per customer a year, and with 145.74 million customers in 2018, according to Statista, that's a potential $265.74 million more per year for the service bump if all its customers made the move to 5G.

With a firm rollout plan and those figures as a dangling carrot, it's little wonder Verizon is able to brush off early fears of shaky 5G performance. 

At the end of the day, if Verizon can fix these early connection problems, its "bullish" investment in 5G will absolutely pay off.

Story originally published April 5 at 1:41 p.m. PT.
Update, April 6 at 9:20 a.m. PT: Added comment from Sprint. Corrected description of AT&T's speeds on its 5G, not 5G E network, and that Ookla's acknowledgment was for all of AT&T's network types.
Update, 1:51 p.m. PT: Added more context.
Update, April 7 at 2 p.m. PT: Updated comment from Sprint.