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Verizon's new 5G network is 'confusing' and 'difficult,' according to early tests

Key Points
  • Early tests by tech publications CNET and The Verge of Verizon's new 5G network in Chicago suggest it's not fully ready yet.
  • Verizon explained why some of the news outlets may have had trouble, since the way the network shows 5G coverage is different.
  • The network is brand new and rollouts take time. It took a few years for 4G LTE to become widely available, for example.
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Verizon rolls out its 5G service in parts of Minneapolis and Chicago

Verizon activated its new 5G network in Chicago and Minneapolis on Wednesday. It's supposed to be much faster — the future of the way we use our phones and mobile devices — but early tests from CNET and The Verge in Chicago suggest it isn't very good yet.

CNET tested Verizon's early 5G network with a Moto Z3 phone and a $200 5G accessory that's required to get it to work with the network right now.

"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," CNET said. "After two hours, we had run maybe one clean Speedtest.net app side by side with the Galaxy S10 Plus." Samsung's phone is a 4G LTE device.

The Verge said, "coverage is so extremely sparse that, for right now, I'd caution anyone against buying the 5G Moto Mod and paying Verizon an extra $10 every month to receive 5G," even though it found "blazing fast data speeds."

Verizon explained to CNBC why the network might have dropped in and out, but cautioned it did not know where the news outlets tested its network.

"When people try and look for coverage, the way the icon works on the phone is different than it works in the past," Mike Haberman, Verizon's vice president of network engineering, told CNBC, noting that the icon that shows a 5G connection only appears when you try to use 5G. So, unlike 4G LTE, right now you don't see the 5G icon even in a coverage area. That will change in a couple of years.

But even where there was an indication of coverage, the network appeared to fail.

CNET found download speeds for a game took about the same on 5G and LTE networks, and downloading a movie on Netflix didn't work. The site said the network felt like a "rush job" and called the experience "frustrating," "confusing" and "absolutely insane," even though it noticed download speeds coming in toward 600 megabits per second at times, on par with what Verizon is promising.

"There could have been an issue with the server or wherever the game was," Haberman said. "That's why people are using Speedtest because that rules out all of the other stuff. As you deploy these technologies, the other half of the ecosystem has to evolve as well." Of course, Speedtest may show fast data speeds, but that doesn't actually mean much for consumers if they can't actually use those speeds yet.

These are very early tests of the network, and networks take time to build.

For example, 4G LTE rolled out over a couple of years and people experienced similar issues when it was new. Eventually, 5G will be able to solve one huge pain point for consumers: capacity. Right now, if you're in a crowded place like a football stadium, you might have a hard time placing a call or getting data. Haberman said 5G adds enough capacity that customers won't have to worry about that problem. That capacity will also allow more devices to connect in places like smart cities, which means city lights, pollution sensors, cameras and more can all run on the network at the same time without worry of network overcrowding.

There's only one 5G phone on Verizon right now, but Verizon has an early exclusive on the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which will launch in the second half of this year. Until then, it sounds like you don't need to rush to get a 5G device.

Read more on CNET and The Verge.

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What is 5G?