The Verizon 5G network is now a year old. But is it a year better?
It was April 2019 when Verizon became the first wireless carrier to directly provide service to mobile consumers in the U.S. Now the challenge for Verizon is to build out its high-speed 5G network so that it approaches the reach of what other carriers are offering.
At present, more than 30 cities now have Verizon 5G service, with more to come in 2020. Verizon also sells phones specifically built to take advantage of 5G's faster speeds, after previously offering a phone that required a special accessory to connect to 5G.
- 5G vs. 4G: What's the speed difference?
- The best 5G phones now available
- What are the best cell phone plans for 5G users?
Here’s a closer look on the current status of Verizon’s 5G efforts, along with the devices that work on the network, and where the carrier goes from here.
Verizon 5G Cities: Where you can now get service
Verizon beat other carriers to the punch last year with a commercial 5G that serves smartphones.
While AT&T turned on 5G service in 12 cities at the end of 2018, the only device that could connect to its network at the time was a 5G hotspot. (AT&T's high-speed 5G service has expanded to other cities, and now it's open to anyone with a Galaxy S20 or Galaxy S20 Ultra. In addition, AT&T offers a lower-speed 5G network in 80 cities that's available to anyone with a 5G-ready phone.) Sprint launched its network last May, bringing service to nine cities, while T-Mobile pushed out high-speed service in half-a-dozen cities at the end of June before launching its low-band 5G network that reaches 5,000 cities in December. (As we found when testing T-Mobile's nationwide 5G network, the speeds don't approach what Verizon offers, but T-Mobile's reach is more extensive.)
Initially, Verizon offered 5G service in just two cities — Chicago and Minneapolis. Verizon followed up those two April 2019 launches by adding 5G service to Denver in June, with Providence, Rhode Island, and St. Paul, Minnesota getting the faster network in July. By the end of that month, Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis and Washington, D.C., had joined the mix. On Aug. 22, Indianapolis became the 10th city with 5G coverage from Verizon, with Phoenix joining the mix the next day. On Sept. 26, Verizon brought the service to the U.S.'s largest city, when 5G launched in New York City; Boise, Idaho, Panama City, Fla., Omaha, Neb. and Dallas, Texas, also now have 5G coverage. Since then, Verizon has added Boston, Houston, Los Angeles and two cities in Iowa (Sioux Falls and Des Moines) to hit the 20 city milestone.
As 2019 ended, a flurry of launches in places like Charlotte and Greensboro N.C., Grand Rapids Mich., Miami, Salt Lake City, Spokane Wash., Memphis and Hoboken N.J. brought 5G mobile service to 31 cities — one more than Verizon's goal for the year.
"And then we don't stop there," said Nicki Palmer, Verizon's chief product development officer, when we talked to her about what's ahead for Verizon and 5G in 2020. Indeed, at last count, Verizon was up to 34 cities with 5G coverage. San Diego becomes the 35th Verizon 5G city on May 28.
Ultimately, Verizon hopes to reach 60 cities with high-speed 5G coverage by the end of the year.
However, just because 5G service is available in all those cities, that doesn't mean you'll see it throughout those cities. When Verizon launches its 5G service — which it calls Ultra Wideband — it's typically limited to select areas, usually around landmarks and where you find a lot of people. Verizon's New York City launch, for example, brought faster download speeds to Midtown, the Financial District, Harlem, East Harlem, Hell’s Kitchen and Washington Heights, as well as parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. That's great if you happen to be in those areas — and in sight of a Verizon 5G small cell — but don't expect 5G to be everywhere you roam.
And even in areas with 5G coverage, you may have trouble finding a connection. When we tested 5G speeds in Chicago last April, we found we could get a 5G connection on some street corners, while failing to connect from the opposite side of the street. In other instances, we’d get 5G connectivity at one spot, but then return 12 hours later to only be able to connect to LTE despite standing in the same location.
Things have improved in Chicago, as Verizon said last fall that it had doubled the number of 5G small cells in the Windy City. And we'd expect that Verizon has continued to fine-tune 5G service in all cities it now serves.
Still, you definitely need to be in sight of a 5G node on a lampost or telephone pole. Even then, there are times when you simply won't be able to connect.
To get a sense of how much of a work in progress Verizon's 5G remains, consider a May 2020 OpenSignal report on how carriers are handling the 5G rollout. While Verizon delivers the fastest speeds of the 10 carriers OpenSignal looked at, it has the lowest percentage of 5G availability. OpenSignal says Verizon's 5G availability is a paltry 0.5%; that compares to 19.8% for T-Mobile's nationwide 5G coverage.
In addition to launching 5G in different cities, Verizon 5G coverage now reaches half of NFL stadiums. (Included among those stadiums is Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, which hosted Super Bowl LIV this past January.)
Don't expect coverage through the stadiums, though — Verizon's says it's concentrated in parts of seating areas. That's also the case in select NBA and NHL arenas that also feature Verizon's 5G coverage. These venues include portions of arenas in San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver and New York's Madison Square Garden. Verizon says it will offer 5G services in 10 arenas this season, though with sports leagues currently shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, no one's really taking advantage of those deployments.
Mobile coverage is just part of the story for Verizon. In October 2018, the company launched home broadband service over 5G in four cities, and in 2019, Chicago became the fifth city to get faster home service. Verizon expects the number of cities with home 5G service to double in 2020.
Verizon 5G: How fast is it?
Much of the hype around 5G is focusing on 1 Gbps download speeds, but Verizon was tamping down on that expectation when it first launched the service. Initially, the carrier promised average speeds of 450 Mbps, with an eye toward that speed increasing as its 5G network develops and improves. When launching service in Denver, Verizon did show off a picture of a phone breaking the 2 Gbps barrier, though you probably shouldn't expect that kind of speed on a regular basis. At a demo in New York, we saw download speeds nearing 1.5 Gbps.
As for our testing, we routinely see Verizon's 5G speeds trounce what you get from LTE. At a launch event at Verizon's Chicago store on April 3, we saw download speeds reach 641 Mbps. And during our own April 2019 testing, we saw speeds near 600 Mbps (though in some cases speeds were closer to 300 Mbps). Things improved further once we got our hands on the Galaxy S10 5G, which Verizon is now selling; testing that phone, we occasionally saw speeds spike above 1 Gbps.
For context, when we tested LTE speeds in Chicago in 2018, Verizon averaged a download speed of 85.8 Mbps, so even 400 Mbps speeds would be a huge jump.
OpenSignal's May 2020 report has the most definitive look at Verizon's speed advantage. The carrier's average speed of 506.1 Mbps was nearly double that of the next fastest carrier (South Korea's LG U+). Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile had the slowest 5G speeds of the 10 carriers included in that report.
Upload speeds are about to get a boost, too, as Verizon customers will now be able to upload over 5G. Previously, uploads had been limited to LTE. Verizon expects upload speeds to be 30% faster over 5G.
The problem is that while Verizon’s 5G can deliver fast speeds, the connection isn’t always stable, as noted above. And we also some confounding results during our April tests. We downloaded a 152MB TV show from Netflix in less than a minute over 5G, while the LTE download took more than 13 minutes. But our attempts to download large apps off Google Play resulted in faster times on LTE than they did on 5G. We’re still scratching our heads over that.
Our tests with the Galaxy S10 5G proved more consistent. We could download an entire season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in a little more than 1 minute; it took a regular Galaxy S10 more than 10 minutes to download a single episode over LTE.
At this point, Verizon's millimeter wave-based 5G network is almost entirely available outdoors. We had our best results when we were in view of one of Verizon's 5G towers, though not directly underneath it.
Verizon's network definitely outperforms other carriers when it comes to 5G speeds, though rival 5G networks have more extensive reach. RootMetrics concluded as much in a recent study, and when we tested the Galaxy S20 Ultra's 5G performance, we saw 1.4 Gbps download speeds on Verizon 5G versus 5G speeds on T-Mobile that were barely better than LTE. We could get a T-Mobile 5G signal indoors, though — something we can't say about Verizon 5G.
Verizon 5G: What phones support it
Verizon now offers multiple phones capable of connecting to its 5G network, even if one of them isn't strictly speaking 5G devices on its own.
That would be the Moto Z4, which runs on a midrange Snapdragon 670 processor. That phone doesn't include e a 5G modem, but attach a 5G Moto Mod to the back of either phone, and you’ll be to hop onto Verizon’s 5G network. The 5G Moto Mod also works with the Moto Z3 and Moto Z2, turning those older devices into 5G-capable handsets.
Such connectivity comes at a price though — the Moto Mod costs $349 and that’s on top of the $499 you’ll pay for the Z4.
A true 5G-capable phone arrived at Verizon last spring in the form of the Galaxy S10 5G. Verizon was the first carrier in the U.S. to offer this phone, which featured a 6.7-inch screen and four rear cameras in addition to its 5G-ready modem, though other carriers eventually added it. The Galaxy S10 5G has since made way for more advanced 5G phones.
That's led by the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra, two of Samsung's newer phones both with 5G connectivity built-in. The S20 Plus and S20 Ultra are pricey at $1,199 and $1,399, respectively, but the X55 modem inside works on Verizon's millimeter wave-based network as well as low-band 5G networks. In June, Verizon will add a version of the $999 Galaxy S20 that works on its network, too.
Galaxy S20, S20 Plus and S20 Ultra @ Verizon
Verizon's latest phones will set you back $1,199 for the S20 Plus and $1,399 for the S20 Ultra, though the carrier lets you buy the phone in installments, too. You'll pay $49.99 a month for 24 months for the S20 Plus and $58.33 a month for the S20 Ultra. The $999 Galaxy S20 will join the mix at Verizon, too, on June 4.
Verizon has other 5G phones, too, including the LG V60 ThinQ 5G for $949 and the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G for $1,299. The OnePlus 8 has joined Verizon's 5G phone roster, with a $799 version that's specially designed to benefit from the carrier's ultrawide band network. (As a result, cases that fit other OnePlus models won't fit Verizon's version.) The Motorola Edge Plus, a Verizon exclusive, is available, too.
OnePlus 8: $799 @ Verizon
This 6.55-inch phone features a 90Hz refresh rate on its display, a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 855 processor and three rear cameras. An unlocked version is available for $100 less, but this model works with Verizon's high-speed 5G network.View Deal
Apart from phones, Verizon sells the Inseego MiFi M1000, a 5G mobile hotspot that boasts advanced security features and firewall protection. Verizon is selling the MiFi M1000 for $649, or $449 on a two-year contract. Adding a Inseego's device to your Verizon account costs $30 a month for 50GB of 5G data and 15GB of LTE data through the device. (More on Verizon's 5G plans for smartphones, below.)
Verizon 5G: How it compares to other carriers
Verizon is using millimeter-wave high-band spectrum to launch its network, the same technology being used by AT&T and, at least initially, T-Mobile. With millimeter wave, Verizon can deliver fast 5G speeds, though the trade-off is more limited coverage than what you'd get from the 2.5GHz spectrum Sprint is using for its initial 5G rollout.
We saw just what the trade-off means in July 2019 when we had a chance to compare the 5G networks of Sprint and Verizon in Chicago. (Sprint turned on its service in the Windy City on July 11, marking the first time two carriers have offered competing 5G service in the same market.) Sprint's 5G network covers a much wider swath of Chicago, and we were able to stay connected more consistently. With Verizon, we had to be in view of one of the carrier's 5G nodes, and forget about getting a signal inside of most businesses.
Where Verizon trumps Sprint, though, is speed. Using a Galaxy S10 5G, we saw download speeds as fast as 855 Mbps on Verizon's network. Our Sprint speeds on an LG V50 ThinQ topped out at 261 Mbps, and Sprint's own data suggested you'd only see averages of 328 Mbps at the time of our testing.
Verizon 5G: What you’ll pay
Verizon revamped its unlimited data plans last year, rolling out four different options. And while the array of plans is confusing, what you'll pay for 5G service remains fairly straightforward.
For each of the four new 5G plans, Verizon is charging $10 a month on top of what you already pay for talk, text and LTE data if you want 5G connectivity. However, for three of those plans — the $80-a-month Do More and Play More options as well as the $90-a-month Get More offering — Verizon is waiving that fee for now if you've got a 5G device on that plan.
Verizon's cheapest new plan, the $70-a-month Start Unlimited offering, still requires you to pay $10 extra for 5G coverage.
By way of comparison, T-Mobile includes 5G coverage in its $70 Magenta plan. Sprint doesn't charge extra for 5G coverage, though you have to get its $80 Unlimited Premium plan to qualify for 5G. For its 5G coverage, AT&T requires you to have either an Unlimited Extra ($75/month) or Unlimited Elite ($85/month) plan. You can see how Verizon's pricing compares in our best unlimited data plan rankings.
Verizon 5G outlook
Verizon beat its rival carriers to offering 5G mobile connectivity, but the company's head start is now over, as all other carriers now offer 5G coverage of some sort.
Verizon has claimed the early speed crown, but it lags other carriers in terms of delivering a consistently available signal. That's likely to change as the carrier builds out its network this year, with a focus on expanding the number of cities with mmWave-based 5G as well as adding low-band 5G coverage.
To that end, Verizon is touting a technology called dynamic spectrum sharing that will allow it to share spectrum between 4G and 5G, with more demanding tasks like downloads and live streams getting the higher spectrum. "We're going to have low band, mid band, high band, and we'll be using use cases to direct the right usage for the right network," Palmer said.
But that's still to come as 5G evolves in 2020. For now, Verizon's 5G network remains a promising work in progress.