Wind, Sleet, And Dead Zones: My Quest To Map Chicago's Spotty 5G

Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo

It was wet, it was windy, and in less than three hours, I think I had experienced the entire gamut of bone-chilling Chicago weather: rain, sleet, and snow. And I did it all to finally get a taste of those sweet super fast 5G speeds on a real, live functioning network. While my short time testing the next generation of mobile communications in the Windy City wasn’t exactly a walk through Millenium Park, I came away with some important info about the state of 5G inits very early days.

On April 4th, Verizon’s announced that its 5G network was officially live in Chicago and Minneapolis, and with it, Big Red claimed that not only has it delivered the first commercially available 5G cell network in the U.S., but actually the entire world.

5G has been long hailed as something that could change the way modern technology functions by making it possible for devices big and small to continuously connected to a super fast data network with gigabit data speeds, extremely low latencies, and massive bandwidth. But how much of that is really available right now at the very beginning of 5G?

On top of only being available in two cities, 5G isn’t even available citywide but instead limited to pockets or strips in a select number of neighbourhoods. To make things even more confusing, there’s no map currently available to tell you which areas have 5G coverage, and which ones don’t. So I flew out to Chicago to test 5G for myself, and maybe even make my own 5G coverage map—the first of its kind—in these very early days of 5G.

How we tested

Now just to be clear, my relatively small data sample was collected pseudo-scientifically at best. After all, I’m just one guy with access to a 5G-capable phone running around an unfamiliar place. (Despite having family in nearby Michigan, this was my first ever trip to Chicago.) My goal wasn’t to create the end-all, be-all map for 5G coverage in Chicago, but rather, to highlight the challenges and issues of 5G deployment, figure out what it’s like to use 5G, and maybe most importantly, talk about what all this is means going forward. (You can find the map I made with the help of our art department near the bottom of this post.)

The quest for 5G begins. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

More specifically, since I had such limited time with a loaner device capable of accessing the network, my plan was to systematically cover as much ground in The Loop—just one of a handful of areas in Chicago with 5G coverage—in order to determine where you can (and can’t) tap into this next-gen tech. I started at the top of The Loop, just south of the Chicago River on Wacker Drive, and then zig-zagged to test for the presence of 5G at street corners as I worked my way south. Going east to west, I tried to hit all the major streets and avenues, though as an adjustment to help me cover more ground, I skipped every other major street going north to south.

Here’s a roughly plotted course of all the intersections I tested while searching for 5G in The Loop. (Screenshot: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

I obtained each data point by using a Moto Z3 phone paired with one of Moto’s 5G mods while running Ookla’s Speedtest app. Testing locations were spaced apart at relatively regular intervals, which is important because as things operate now, the icon that denotes when you are connected to Verizon’s 5G Ultra-Wide Band network, only shows up when you’re actively using 5G.

That means you can’t just walk around hoping for the 5G icon to appear, you have to do something specific to trigger a network response, and the check to see if 5G is available. For each location, I recorded whether the phone was connected to 4G or 5G, along with the download and upload speed in Mbps (megabits per second) as measured by the Speedtest app.

To ensure the phone got the best 5G speeds possible, I also made sure to always select Verizon as the server provider in Speedtest. Also, while I did record upload speeds for each location, Verizon’s 5G network is only designed to support downward data traffic, which means all uploads were sent over 4G, regardless of which icon was lit up (more on this later).

The process

After confirming the phone and mod were functioning correctly by successfully connecting to a 5G cell right outside Motorola’s headquarters located inside Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, I immediately started the testing at the northwest corner of The Loop at Franklin and Wacker. To little surprise, I didn’t get a taste of 5G here, though with a speed of 66 Mbps down and 38.4 Mbps up, even without 5G, Verizon’s cell speeds looked pretty decent.

This is what I came to find. That’s some serious speed. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

Moving on from there, I headed over to the corner of Wells and Wacker, which is where I encountered the first bit of 5G during my testing. However, while the 5G UWB icon was lit up on the phone and Speedtest managed to establish a connection, actual data speeds were quite disappointing, with download speeds hitting just 11.6 Mbps. While it’s just a theory, I think the numbers there were so low is because that intersection was close enough to the 5G node outside of Moto HQ, which was just a block north of there, but too far to access any sort of meaningful 5G speeds.

Construction towards the end of Wacker Drive prevented me from testing the very northeast corner of the Loop. Sorry about that. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

As I later discovered, the range for one of Verizon’s 5G cells only extends about a block, maybe a block and a half if you’re lucky, a factor that also explains why on the next intersection at LaSalle and Wacker, while the phone once again displayed the 5G icon in the upper right, it couldn’t even maintain a connection to Verizon’s server long enough to complete a full speed test. The Speedtest app returned an error each of the five times I tried to run it, so after much frustration, I decided to move on to the next street.

This was when the testing got a bit more challenging, as the overcast skies gave way to basically every form of precipitation imaginable. To make things worse, it seemed I was in a 5G dead zone that continued across the northeast part of the Loop. At one point, after not seeing any signs of 5G signal for almost two hours while being pelted with sleet I started to question if the phone was working properly. That is until I ran into a lone bright spot of 5G coverage at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, right next to the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

While I got data speeds upwards of 500 Mbps outside, when I went inside a Walgreens across the street from a 5G node speeds fell by half, and continued to drop even more as I moved further into the store. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

Here, Verizon’s 5G was packing heat, posting a mind-blowing download speed of 552 Mbps, which turned out to be the second fastest data speed I saw all day and more than 30 times faster than the U.S’ average 4G download speed of 16.3 Mbps. However, aside from that one spot, anyone looking for 5G coverage in the northern part of the Loop should probably know that overall, there just isn’t much 5G to be found.

However, when I moved on to test Madison and Adams, suddenly it was a whole new world, with Madison almost completely lit up with 5G coverage from east to west. It was around about that time when I started to develop a knack for identifying 5G cell nodes, which are typically placed on the same tower or light pole as 4G equipment, but slightly further down and with angled transmitters positioned to project 5G signal in specific directions.

This is important because unlike 4G and some other 5G tech used by other carriers, the millimetre wave 5G bands Verizon uses in its 5G service suffers a lot more from things like buildings, walls, or other obstructions that can block millimetre wave signals. And while tech like beamforming does allow carriers to bounce 5G waves off nearby objects to help 5G penetrate into buildings, you need a lot of 5G cells to really make that work, which is something no carrier has quite yet. That means for now, 5G largely feels like it operates on a line-of-sight basis, so if you can’t see a 5G node nearby, you probably won’t get top 5G speeds on a phone either.

There was also one oddity at the corner of Wabash and Adams, where because of the bridge for the El-train that runs down Wabash, I was able to get 5G with speeds in excess of 500 Mbps on the west of the bridge, but just by crossing the street to the east of the bridge, data speeds were cut almost in half down to 239 Mbps down.

The 5G cells are the cluster of boxes halfway up the device. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

At this point, I started to experience the Baader-Meinhof effect, because once I knew what to look for, I was finding 5G equipment everywhere along Madison and Adams streets. This is effect is also what prompted me to take spend few extra minutes at southwest corner of Millennium Park and on Jackson and Wacker to confirm that what I thought was 5G equipment was indeed sending out a 5G signal. (I was correct.)

From there I moved down to Van Buren Street, which once again plunged me back into a cold world almost entirely lacking 5G coverage. Not only did this highlight how quickly things can change for 4G and 5G, it also highlighted one of the biggest issues with 5G: adapting to challenging urban layouts. In addition to typical obstructions, a large section of Van Buren Street has a train track running over the top, which makes setting up 5G cells and sending signal for what is an already tricky wavelength damn near impossible. So it’s no surprise Verizon may have chosen to skip that street for now.

By this point, I was cold, hungry, and dead-arse tired, having survived a freakish bout of weather. In the end, I tested 50 different intersections throughout the Loop, and according to the fitness metrics from my smartwatch, I covered 27,000 steps (slightly more than 19km, though it felt like more), and over 230 flights of stairs (which seems a bit high, IMO). It was time to call it a day.

Results and impressions

Graphic: Jim Cooke, Gizmodo

Out of the 50 different testing sites covering about a square mile of the Loop, I found that just 19 out of 50 locations (less than 40 per cent) had any 5G coverage, with an average download speed of 387 Mbps. And that’s including the handful of spots where the phone said it was connected to 5G, but clearly wasn’t delivering top 5G speeds.

If you’re a Verizon customer, those statistics paint a very different picture than Verizon’s website, which claims much of the company’s 5G coverage in Chicago “will be concentrated in The Loop,” with additional zones of 5G coverage around landmarks including The Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park, and The Chicago Theatre.

Things get even bleaker when you remember that Verizon’s 5G network is only providing downloads for now, while uploads are handled over regular 4G. And the next day, when I attempted to see what you could actually do with access to 500 megabit data speeds on a phone, those results weren’t that impressive either.

When I tried to torrent a few large videos, both struggled to reach even one megabit download speeds. For whatever reason, despite having a huge wireless pipe carrying data into the phone, either the app or the network prevented me from taking advantage of all the bandwidth, which left me with downloads speeds equivalent to what you get on a normal 4G connection.

It was a similar story when I tried to download some videos for offline viewing in the YouTube app. Even 10- to 20-minute videos saved at 720p (the highest resolution you can download a video in YouTube) still took minutes to download, rather than seconds 5G’s super high data speeds should have enabled.

I also learned from the testing that even under ideal connections, 5G signals only extend about a block from a tower. That means in order to really cover a city, carriers using millimetre wave 5G will have install equipment on every other block.

But perhaps the most eye-opening revelation was when I tried to use 5G at The Art Institute of Chicago. Despite being less than a block away from a 5G cell, simply going inside the museum and breaking line of sight with the cell equipment sent data speeds plummeting from over 400 Mbps to less than 20 Mbps. In fact, I didn’t even have to go inside to make that happen.

Just that tiny bit of wall sticking out was enough to almost completely block Verizon’s 5G signal and caused data speeds to plummet down to 4G levels. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

Just by moving one step and putting a bit of concrete between me and the tower was enough to mess with 5G connectivity. It was like I was Ahchoo from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, except that instead of jumping over a tiny stream, I was dancing in and out of 5G coverage just by shuffling two feet to the left or right.

Also, anytime I did some additional testing indoors, even in locations right next to a 5G cell, I found significant drops in data speeds. In one situation inside a Walgreens on the corner of Randolph and LaSalle, data didn’t take much of a hit as long as I stayed near a window, but as soon as I moved behind a row full of cosmetics, data speeds dropped by half to 270 Mbps. Now that’s still a ton of bandwidth, but as I continued moving deeper into the store, speeds dropped quickly to the point where just a couple more aisles back, I was back to only having a 4G connection. So at this point, it’s safe to call 5G a total bust right? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

So what’s the point?

It’s still incredibly early when it comes to 5G development. Verizon flipped the switch on 5G service less two weeks ago (and a week before it had originally promised, so naturally there are some hiccups. And while being the first company in the world that can claim a live commercial 5G network is largely symbolic, at the same time, 5G is definitely real.

Heavy wind, rains, sleet, and snow, and hail in less than three hours. I guess that just Chicago weather for you. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

That alone is a major feat for a technology that most people still talk about in a theoretical sense, but more importantly, it provides a real test bed that Verizon and device makers like Motorola can use to enhance 5G and the gadgets that run on it.

Now I still maintain that for 2019, 5G is going to be an incredibly tough sell, and there’s no need to feel bad about not buying or even being interested in getting a 5G phone this year. But at the same time, having 5G available in the wild right now means that when you do finally upgrade, teams of people smarter than me with way more resources will have been working on it for quite some time.

Verizon says it will be adding more 5G cells to its network over the coming weeks, which means in less than a month, my slapdash coverage map could become quickly outdated. Verizon is also working on adding the ability for its 5G network to handle both uploads and downloads, which for me, would be a dream at events like CES, so I could upload video to people back at the office without being forced to hunt around for wifi.

That icon in the top right will be very important not too long from now, but for the moment, 5G is still very much in its infancy. (Photo: Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo)

By the time other carriers turn on their 5G networks later this year, Verizon and Motorola will have already collected collect weeks or months of data from a real 5G network (not just simulated tests in a lab somewhere), which for something as important as 5G, could end up being a pretty significant head start. And I guess congrats are in order to Motorola as well because while it sounded ridiculous when the company said it wanted to make the first 5G phone, the Moto Z3 and 5G Moto Mod did deliver.

Meanwhile, for anyone in working or living in the Loop and wondering where all the 5G is at, here’s a little something. It’s far from perfect, but at least it’s a start.

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