Updated Jan. 10: A new report suggests that the 5G OnePlus 8 will be available through Verizon later this year.
5G connectivity for smartphones is finally here, and Verizon was the wireless carrier to offer the service directly to mobile customers. But can it keep up the pace and expand upon the coverage that's already launched?
Last April, Verizon 5G service arrived in a pair of cities, though Big Red has been expanding coverage to other areas throughout the year, meeting its goal of bringing 5G service to 30 cities in 2019 with a week to spare. 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.
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 get it first
Verizon beat other carriers to the punch with a commercial 5G that serves smartphones. AT&T turned on 5G service in 12 cities at the end of 2018, but the only device that could connect to its network at the time was a 5G hotspot; it's since added other cities plus a phone for select customers while launching a lower-speed 5G network in 10 cities that's available to anyone with a 5G-ready phone. Sprint launched its network in 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 the reach is more extensive.)
Initially, Verizon offered service in just two cities — Chicago and Minneapolis — with the April 3 launch happening a week ahead of schedule. Verizon followed up those two early 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.
However, just because 5G service is available in 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 improved in Chicago, as Verizon says it's doubled the number of 5G small cells in the Windy City by the fall. 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. 5G remains a work in progress, though Verizon says it's teaming up with Boingo to extend 5G's reach indoors while also doing work on its own to improve 5G connectivity on its network.
In addition to launching 5G in different cities, Verizon says it's providing 5G coverage in at least a dozen NFL stadiums, with more to follow throughout the season. Don't expect coverage through the stadiums, though — Verizon's says it's concentrated in parts of seating areas. As of the opening weekend, stadiums included in Verizon's 5G coverage are in Charlotte, Denver, Seattle, Detroit, Miami, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Houston, Chicago, Minneapolis, East Rutherford, NJ (Giants and Jets) and Foxboro, Mass. (New England Patriots).
When the NBA and NHL seasons got underway this year, Verizon announced 5G services in portions of arenas in San Francisco, Phoenix, Denver and Madison Square Garden. Verizon says it will offer 5G services in 10 arenas this season, though as with its football stadium coverage, 5G connectivity will only be available in certain sections of those buildings.
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 this year, Chicago became the fifth city to get faster home service.
How fast will Verizon 5G be?
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 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.
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 first 5G phones
Verizon now offers multiple phones capable of connecting to its 5G network, even if a few of them aren't strictly speaking 5G devices on their own.
Those latter phones would be the Moto Z3, which came out in 2018 and features an older Snapdragon 835 chipset, and the new Moto Z4, which runs on a midrange Snapdragon 670 processor. Neither of those chipsets include 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 two-year-old Moto Z2 recently added 5G Moto Mod compatibility as well.
Such connectivity comes at a price though — the Moto Mod costs $349 and that’s on top of the $480 or $499 you’ll pay for the Z3 or Z4, respectively.
5G Moto Mod
This accessory is compatible with the Moto Z3 and Z4, adding the ability to connect to Verizon's 5G network — at least in cities where that network's available.View Deal
A true 5G-capable phone arrived at Verizon this spring in the form of the Galaxy S10 5G. Verizon is the first carrier in the U.S. to offer this phone, which features a 6.7-inch screen and four rear cameras in addition to its 5G-ready modem. (Sprint and AT&T now sell it, too, though AT&T is restricting sales to corporate customers.) In our review, we found the phone delivers phenomenal 5G speeds where available, but with Verizon's network still in its early stages, it's hard to recommend a $1,300 phone, especially when the Galaxy S10 Plus offers the same great camera and a better battery for $300 less.
And $1,300 is what you'll pay for the 256GB version of the S10 5G at Verizon; upgrade to the 512GB model and you'll pay $1,400. There are two different colors available — Crown Silver and Majestic Black.
Galaxy S10 5G
Verizon's first 5G-ready phone has a big screen and multiple cameras, along with a fairly hefty price tag.View Deal
In mid-June, Verizon added the LG V50 ThinQ, which previously had been a Sprint exclusive. That phone costs $999 at Verizon. The Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G is now on sale at Verizon, too, with the version Verizon sells specifically designed to connect with its Ultra Wideband network. (The version of the Note 10 Plus 5G on sale at T-Mobile and AT&T works with those carriers' low-band 5G networks.)
Look for Verizon to add to the ranks of its 5G phones this year. A new report claims that the OnePlus 8 is coming to Verizon and that phone should offer 5G connectivity. Based on past OnePlus releases, we'd expect to see the OnePlus 8 arrive in spring.
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.)
How does Verizon's 5G network compare 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 early July 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 suggests you'd only see averages of 328 Mbps for now.
Expect more comparisons to emerge with Verizon's service coming to New York City. Sprint offers coverage there, as does T-Mobile, which also used millimeter-wave in its initial 5G rollout. As noted above, T-Mobile launched a more extensive 5G network in December, but it's using sub-600MHz spectrum, so you'll see slower speeds than what Verizon offers, even if T-Mobile's new network will have wider range and cover 5,000 cities.
What you’ll pay for Verizon 5G
Verizon revamped its unlimited data plans, 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 says that free access is for a limited time — presumably while it builds out its 5G coverage.
That's not all that different from Verizon's previous approach where Beyond Unlimited and Above Unlimited subscribers had to pay $10 a month for 5G service, though Verizon was waiving that fee, too.
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.
Verizon beat its rival carriers to offering 5G mobile connectivity, even if its phone selection is limited and the Verizon 5G network doesn’t always perform as advertised. Verizon's head start is now over, as all other carriers now offer 5G coverage of some sort, though it's limited to select cities.
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, though Verizon has not yet disclosed how many additional cities will receive coverage now that it's gone past its 30-city goal.
Ultimately, Verizon plans to build out a network that uses a wider array of spectrum so that its network has greater reach. It's also 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.
Image Credits: Tom's Guide