Verizon claims incredible 5G speeds on its brand-new network. That’s n-not what happened today.

Derek Poore/CNET

What was it like using Verizon’s new 5G network with the Moto Z3 snapped to its 5G Moto Mod attachment for six hours around downtown Chicago? Confusing. Frustrating. Absolutely insane. (Check out Verizon’s full 5G coverage map.)

Verizon’s day-old network — it only launched Wednesday in parts of downtown Chicago and Minneapolis — is also a lot like using 4G. I had a battalion of upload and download tests I was going to try. I had to throw my plans out the window.

That’s not a good thing, because it either means that the Moto Z3 and its 5G Mod took the same time to do things in 4G as it did with the 5G logo lit up, or that Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband just wasn’t working. Neither one is a good look for a network boasting to be the world’s first live 5G network.

Verizon jumped the gun by turning on 5G earlier than its April 11 target, a move that underscores the carrier’s belief that acting quickly and aggressively in 5G will give its network, already the largest in the US, a first-mover advantage. 5G, the next-generation wireless technology, is widely championed as the cure to laggy data connections and slow phone download speeds.

5G is positioned to revolutionize the industry, increase data connections from 10 to 100 times the current 4G speeds and enable a host of new uses, like distance surgery and smart traffic lights that talk to one another to keep traffic flowing smoothly.

That’s not what I saw. By a long-shot. But to be fair, neither was I expecting mind-blowing speeds. 5G is a brand-new technology, prone to pitfalls, stumbling blocks and rough edges. Verizon has been very clear about the limited coverage areas, and has promised that it’ll cover parts of 30 cities with 5G speeds by the end of 2019. While 5G comes online for the first time in one city, network engineers will also expand coverage in, say, Chicago.

5G speeds are also expected to easily top 4G, gaining momentum as carriers build out their 5G networks over time. I spent the day all over downtown to test real-life 5G speeds, far from carefully constructed demos. Here’s what happened: the good, the bad and the aggravating.

A word on 5G before we begin

5G isn’t just one thing. There are multiple approaches. Sub-6. Millimeter wave (mmWave). AT&T has even been accused of (and sued for) “fake 5G.” With this new world of 5G comes a cosmos of new jargon.

For example, Verizon’s 5G network uses the 28GHz and 39GHz bands for mmWave to bring 1GHz of bandwidth on average nationally. If that doesn’t mean much to you, it might help to get up to date with our 5G primer.

A word on the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod

We also need to talk about this Moto Z3 for a minute. It’s a midrange device that is able to channel Verizon’s 5G network through the power of a chunky antenna and the internal modem inside the 5G Moto Mod, which is sold separately.

The Mod has four antennas and infrared sensors to signal the right antenna to accept signal, if you’re blocking any of the others with your hands.

The 5G Mod is a magnetic attachment.

Derek Poore/CNET

The Moto Z3 is on sale now at $240 (usually $480); the Moto Mod is also on sale now at $200 (usually $350), and you have to have a Z3 on your account to buy it. Verizon 5G service is a $10 premium over the regular plan, but your first three months are free.

Motorola and Verizon have a special (contractual) relationship, but a decade from now when we gaze back on the first crop of 5G phones, the Moto Z3 with 5G Moto Mod won’t go down in history like Motorola’s achievement for making the first cellular call 46 years ago.

The road to testing hell is paved with good intentions

The day began cheerily enough, with a visit to Verizon’s big store on Michigan Avenue. Just after its 10 a.m. opening, workers on ladders were just beginning to unpeel giant “5G” stickers on the windows. Three digital screens explained “It’s here! It’s here! It’s here!”

Verizon’s friendly PR reps handed out test phones and pointed to the blinking black box affixed to a wall near the entrance — this was the 5G “node,” a part of the network that delivers 5G speeds to the store. If your 5G device is within line of sight, it should receive Verizon’s fastest data speeds. Verizon says to expect “typical speeds of 450Mbps, with peak speeds of nearly 1Gbps, and latency less than 30 milliseconds.”

Finally, some actually fast 5G speed.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

It was immediately clear this wouldn’t be the case. Even carefully positioned a few feet away from the 5G node, the large on-screen icon exclaiming Verizon’s 5G network toggled back and forth from 4G to 5G. It felt like all I had to do was move the phone or look at it wrong and the 5G UWB (Ultra Wideband) insignia would flicker away. After two hours, we had run maybe one clean app side by side with the Galaxy S10 Plus.

At the same time we were trying our luck upstairs, a “S.W.A.T. team” of troubleshooting engineers from Verizon, Motorola, Qualcomm (the chipmaker) and Ericsson (which makes the networking infrastructure gear) swarmed the store. Apparently the node was acting up. It didn’t get much better from there.

Fast benchmarking speeds, but only real-world failures

The second and third stops were better, at least as far as the benchmarking app went. The second was across the street from the Merchant Mart, which is home to Motorola’s headquarters. It was standing outside in a valet lot in the rain that we were able to see those blazing 5G download speeds, at least some of the time.

That 5G icon — now you see it, now you don’t.

Derek Poore/CNET

A couple times I saw theoretical download speeds kissing 600 megabits per second. Other times, the download would start strong, the phone would flicker to show the 4G logo, and speeds would plummet. And still other times, the 5G logo was on, but speeds fell in between the two.

Real world test 1: Downloading a large file

It’s here outside Motorola HQ that I was finally able to try my first real-world test: downloading the game PUBG. It’s a large, 1.81GB file, which took roughly 5 minutes and 45 seconds to download with the 5G icon going strong. Then I uninstalled the app, took off the Mod to ensure 4G LTE speeds only, reinstalled it over data and… it took exactly the same time.

Uplink is the same on 5G and 4G, Verizon said, at least for now.

Real world test 2: Downloading a Netflix show

The preeminent scenario for the 5G dream is being able to download entire seasons of Netflix from the time you walk down the airplane gangplank to the time you settle into your seat. Ditto downloading a big presentation or a bunch of photos before you’re forced to go offline.

This is the 5G icon you should see all the time.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

This would be the perfect test for our third location, the intersection of Michigan and Monroe outside the famous Art Institute of Chicago. Once again standing directly below the node (outdoors, they’re attached to street lights), we ran a few speed tests for a baseline, and then attempted to download a 50-minute episode of Planet Earth II from Netflix.

With the 5G logo on full display, we turned on the stopwatch using another phone and watched the progress pie chart inch forward a sliver, and then another, and then… nothing. After several more attempts, the 5G Moto Mod came off and we tried it again. The same progress, followed by the same stalling for minutes. After 20 minutes in the rain, it was time to once again move on.

Real-world test… oh, forget it

Our fourth and final test site was a total bust. A few blocks from the famous Chicago Theater, I stood beneath the 5G node and tried every reboot, cycling and reattachment trick for a good five minutes. Nothing happened. Still nothing happened. We reported it to Verizon’s “S.W.A.T. team” and called it a day.

Verizon’s 5G network is under construction.

Derek Poore/CNET

What happened to all the other tests I planned?

I started the day, fresh-faced and caffeinated with a plan to throw loads of comparison speed tests, lots of downloads and gameplay at the Moto Z3.

The problem is that it took too long to lock onto a strong enough 5G network to complete one task that there wasn’t time for the rest, especially if we wanted to check out four different locations around the city — and we did, to get a sense of Verizon’s real-world deployment of 5G coverage.

If 5G repeatedly cuts out and cycling airplane mode, disconnecting and reconnecting the Moto Mod and even rebooting the phone won’t reliably bring it back again, how can you accurately assess the impact of downloading large files or play resource-heavy games? You can’t. Those deeper tests will have to wait for a more stable network.

Three big, unacceptable problems, and how to fix them

Any way you slice it, this was a disaster of a launch. Yes, Verizon became the first “real” 5G network in the world, but at what cost? The journalists who came to Chicago spent all day outside in cold, rainy weather with very little to show for it. While speed tests worked in some locations, real downloads weren’t any faster, even when standing directly beneath a node.

As far as I can tell, three things went majorly wrong.

The flickering 5G icon

Hours after our testing day was done, Verizon informed us that the 5G logo only turns on when you’re actually using 5G. So switching rapidly between the two logos is a sign that the 5G network is engaged. It dips back to the 4G logo any other time.

I don’t buy that. When 4G butted in during speed tests, the downlink speeds on the screen fell sharply, in line with 4G speeds. If 5G returned while the test ran, speeds picked up. That doesn’t fall in line with the engineers’ explanation.

The fix: Assuming that’s the case and not a line, Verizon needs a persistent 5G icon — just like the 4G icon now — so people know they can access those speeds. What else are they paying $10 a month more for?

Baby steps…

Derek Poore/CNET

The time the Moto Mod died and I didn’t know it

Remember that fourth location near the Chicago Theater where 5G didn’t work at all, no matter what I tried? What I realized later was that the Moto Mod was dead. Motorola gave the 5G Mod its own 2,000mAh battery, and when it goes, so does 5G.

Yes, there’s a battery indicator on the screen, but that’s for the phone itself. There’s no other visual meter showing the Mod’s battery life. There is, however, a notification that appears, along with all your other notifications.

Motorola also says it shows you a temporary notification on the home screen that the battery life on the Mod is dead. Maybe the phone was in my purse while I was en route. Maybe I looked away when it flashed. For whatever reason, I didn’t see it.

I agree that having a dead Mod suck power from your phone’s battery isn’t the right move, at least not without your permission. If 5G dies, no big deal, you can live with 4G speeds. But if your phone dies as a result of fueling 5G, then you’re really in trouble.

The fix: Like Verizon, Motorola needs a lesson in better communication. A battery indicator for the Mod is a must, and it’s got to stand out as distinct from the phone’s battery indicator. Also, any future Mod (and OMG, I hope there’s never another one like this) needs to offer to share battery if you have plenty to spare.

Verizon’s rush job

In its rush to be first to 5G, Verizon appears to have thrown its hands up and hoped for the best. The utter breakdown and embarrassment of this day will pass. Verizon is playing a long game. And there is an advantage to rolling out 5G first.

However, on-the-spot troubleshooting doesn’t make Verizon look particularly capable or smart, even if a massive amount of technical skill and planning went into the deployment. It would have been better to wait a week, for a better showing.

The fix: Unfortunately, Verizon can’t Back To the Future us to Tuesday when it apparently had its go/no go launch meeting. But it can throw resources (aka tons of money and people) at working on its mistakes before human guinea pigs pay good money for irregular and unreliable 5G.

Verizon should be prepared to credit early adopters for uneven service as a reward for sticking through what’s almost guaranteed to be some turbulent times.

Samsung’s Galaxy S10 5G and other phones are coming up.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

What we all learned today, and what it means for you

I can’t speak for the folks who samples Verizon’s 5G launch in Minneapolis, but this experience in Chicago underscores the rocky road ahead for 5G. The new technology isn’t unique in having a rough start. The same happened when we transitioned from 3G to 4G. It’s par for the course.

But maybe there are some new lessons here. Networks and phone brands need to make it crystal clear when you’re receiving 5G and when you’re not.

I’m still excited about 5G once the carriers work out big kinks. But I can’t recommend a 5G phone in the near future based on this experience.

Before you rush to join the 5G revolution, think carefully about your options. Consult a coverage map. Do the math to see how much more it will cost. Look into what’s down the road. Qualcomm has a smaller chip for 2019’s 5G phones that will make the Mod and even the Galaxy S10 5G obsolete. Phones, too, will get cheaper over time.

Today marked an unforgettable look at our 5G future. But it’s not the 5G future any of us deserves.

Originally published April 4 at 8:20 a.m. PT.


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