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Here's our first test of Verizon's faster, wider-reaching 5G network

The improved network uses a new band of radio airwaves that promises to give it better range and speed.

Verizon C-band test in LA Live entertainment complex, using a phone (Samsung Galaxy S21 5G) set to only get C-band 5G signal.
Verizon let me test its upcoming 5G, using a Samsung Galaxy S21 5G phone set only to receive a C-band 5G signal.
David Lumb / CNET

Verizon offered an early glimpse Thursday of the improvements coming to its 5G network next year, although the number of devices able to tap into those higher speeds will be limited at first. 

The nation's largest wireless carrier hooked up the LA Live entertainment complex in Los Angeles with its C-band radio airwaves, a set of wireless spectrum it acquired earlier this year that's expected to inject more coverage and speed into its 5G network. I had a chance Thursday to try it out in a highly controlled test, and the speed topped 1 Gbps on a Verizon-supplied phone. 

That's a good sign for Verizon customers who may be underwhelmed by their 5G experience today. While 5G emerged with tons of hype, people have been caught between the company's ultra-fast – but extremely limited – millimeter-wave-powered spectrum (covering crowded areas or venues like Times Square or Madison Square Garden) and its low-band spectrum, which can cover city blocks but offer speeds comparable to 4G. 

C-band is meant to provide a compromise of speed and range, potentially fulfilling the promise of 5G as a game-changing technology. It's also a key way that Verizon (and AT&T, which also acquired the same C-band spectrum in a Federal Communications Commission auction), will catch up to T-Mobile, which already has a similar swath of spectrum and has used it to take the lead in 5G speeds this year. 

This is the first C-band test in the wild since Verizon and AT&T acquired their spectrum earlier this year, and the high hopes seem, at first glance, to measure up, as Verizon insisted that the test environment reflected the speeds consumers will see. 

Both Verizon and AT&T plan to roll out their C-band coverage widely next year, but both face opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration and the airline industry, which have expressed concern that this band could interfere with key cockpit safety devices. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said this week that the carriers' rollout plans could force his company to divert or cancel 4% of its daily flights. Verizon declined to comment on the FAA's position on C-band spectrum.

However that shakes out, the 5G experience for consumers will eventually see big improvements. I found Verizon's network to deliver high speeds in the open and speeds noticeably higher than 4G in problem areas with millimeter wave, like around corners, underground and even in elevators. 

A Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon's C-band test network, two floors underground in a parking structure.

Here is a Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon's C-band test network, two floors underground in a parking structure.

David Lumb / CNET

Not every Verizon subscriber with a 5G-capable phone will be able to enjoy its C-band spectrum. In fact, only a handful of the latest phones will be able to access it initially, including the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S21 and Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3. It's a technological bottleneck because the access can't be backdated to all older phones, so only newer devices will be able to access the speeds we tested. It's unclear what the full list of compatible devices will be. 

Verizon previously promised that other devices will get C-band, including last year's Google Pixel 5. When the proper software updates might arrive to enable connection to the new network, however, remains an open question. 

A Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon's C-band test network in downtown Los Angeles, running a speed test inside an elevator.

Here is the Samsung Galaxy S21 5G connected to Verizon's C-band test network in downtown LA, running a speed test inside an elevator.

David Lumb / CNET

Verizon also requires that you have not only a compatible phone, but also one of its more premium data plans to tap into C-band, or what it calls "Ultra Wideband" 5G. This includes the Play More, Do More and Get More unlimited plans it offers today or the older Above and Beyond Unlimited plans from a few years ago. 

The other caveat is the test environment: Verizon activated a handful of C-band stations in a limited area and handed out Samsung Galaxy S21 5G phones to a small number of media members, who were set to only tap into those frequencies (not the higher-speed millimeter-wave ranges). While speed tests were easily accessible to give on-the-spot performance readings, the provided devices didn't have multimedia apps and weren't able to relay their signal through tethering, so I couldn't test whether they could harness the high speeds of C-band for streaming media or high-performance games.

Samsung Galaxy S21 5G (left) connected to C-band network vs. iPhone 12 Pro (right) connected to millimeter wave 5G network.

This Samsung Galaxy S21 5G (left) is connected to C-band network, next to an Apple iPhone 12 Pro connected to millimeter wave 5G network.

David Lumb / CNET

But comparisons with my own Verizon phone, an iPhone 12 Pro that was able to tap into the faster millimeter wave network, showed similar speeds to the test unit's C-band connection. Both achieved peak download speeds above 1 Gbps, comparable to the fastest available home internet connection. 

The test unit also performed admirably in the areas where C-band is expected to bridge gaps. While Verizon's network will prioritize millimeter wave (also known as mmWave) for higher speeds whenever possible, those frequencies typically don't reach indoors or through walls, and my testing showed high speeds of around 400 Mbps in these environments – over twice as fast as we got on current 4G and mmWave 5G networks. Even two stories underground in a parking structure, I  still got speeds of 90 Mbps.

Given the limited test environment and restrictions on testing the devices, it's tough to anticipate what the network is capable of regarding high-bandwidth activities like streaming video games over Xbox Cloud Gaming. But the early speeds are promising, and I look forward to more rigorous testing to truly see if C-band measures up to the gap-spanning promises that Verizon and AT&T have laid out for the bandwidth range both paid more than $80 billion for.