Verizon’s rollout last week of its proprietary 5G home service was met with a fair amount of vociferous skepticism. While the criticisms had their fair share of cattiness, they seemed to center primarily around just how limited the service coverage was rather than the quality of the service, or whether it truly constituted a 5G network.
On the question of coverage, it was certainly a limited rollout including just four cities: Sacramento, Los Angeles, Houston and Indianapolis. However, even within that limited number of cities, Verizon never made it known exactly how much coverage they would be offering. It became clear after the rollout that the coverage would be limited to a few restricted neighborhoods in these cities.
While coverage limitations garnered most of the complaints, the design of the network was not beyond reproach. The limited rollout had all the earmarks of 5G: millimeter wave (mmWave) transmission and small cells. However, Verizon’s 5G home service was more or less a prototype and did not meet the industry standards for 5G set out in Release 15 of the 5G New Radio specifications, scheduled for rollout in 2019. Nonetheless, to get to that standard seemed to be merely a matter of updating the software. But even Verizon acknowledged that the limited network they were rolling out would not scale up and would not resemble the 5G it intended to have in the years to come.
As far as the performance characteristics are concerned, it seemed as though people were satisfied. At least one user in Houston posted on a Reddit forum that the service was top notch. “I had it installed today,” said a Reddit user in Houston who goes by the name fileunderjeff. “I’m getting speeds of 900+ megabytes per second (mbps) downstream (wired), 600+ downstream (wireless), 200+ upstream.”
The nuts and bolts of the installation that this Reddit user cited provided some insights on what lies ahead when full-scale 5G home service networks are rolled out. He reported:
“They will mount a small, oven-mitt sized antenna on the inside or outside of your house. They literally bolted one on the side of my house. They run a wire from the antenna into your house (or through your house if the antenna is inside), so make sure there’s a good path to run the wire from the antenna to the entry point discreetly. The distance from your house to the node matters. My closest node is about three blocks away, and my connection is fine. Installation takes several hours. They will be inside and outside of your home.”
While the performance levels and even the service of Verizon have been highly praised on social media, actually getting the service in one of the four cities was a challenge, even if they picked your neighborhood.
A technician testing the equipment on Wilson Calvert’s balcony, in Houston, TX.Photo: Wilson Calvert
Wilson Calvert, a Verizon customer in Houston, who was excited to learn that he was going to be one of the first 5G users in the world had his hopes dashed by what could be a limiting factor for the technology going forward: getting a signal to go through a building.
To achieve the broader radio spectrum necessary for the high-speed bandwidth promised, 5G networks will use the mmWave spectrum—the radio spectrum above roughly 30 gigahertz. While that certainly broadens the number of frequencies these networks can access, it comes at the price of signals not penetrating buildings, or other obstacles very effectively.
This ended up being the factor that kept Calvert from being one of the first 5G users. “There wasn't a strong enough signal,” he said. “My neighbor's garage apartment was between my apartment and the micro cell installation. We were able to get signal outside of units that did not have a building in the way.”
For Calvert, signing up for the rollout consisted of simply going to the Verizon website, typing in his address and being informed that an installation might be possible at his location. Unfortunately, the experience of signing up was not as easy for Carli Stevenson, who tried to get on the service in Indianapolis.
Stevenson, who said that she works for the non-profit organization Demand Progress, which is in part dedicated to Internet-related issues, such as net neutrality and increasing access to broadband Internet, was not entirely convinced that her neighborhood was left out of the trial by random chance.
“I only live ten minutes from downtown Indianapolis and my neighborhood is just west of what we call “Mile Square,” which is the business district and the epicenter of downtown,” said Stevenson. “I do live in a low-income neighborhood, so my suspicion is that they’re rolling out 5G, but they’re only making it available to certain addresses and those addresses are based on the property values. I have no proof of this but it’s just my strong suspicion.”
While Stevenson concedes she has no evidence that there was any economic considerations taken by Verizon in choosing the neighborhoods that got the service, her suspicions, along with Calvert’s disappointment in not getting 5G even though it was in his neighborhood, highlight what may be the key issue with 5G in the real world: Who can get access to it.
This story was updated on 12 October 2018.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.