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How Verizon engineers broke the 5 Gbps speed barrier

When people talk about mobile connectivity, it can be easy to get hung up on the latest devices, from smartphones to wearable tech. Arguably more important, however, is the speed at which your devices can move data. For Verizon, the effort to send those numbers ever higher is instrumental to providing the best service for partners and customers. It’s what makes them an industry leader in network technology, and is key to achieving the kind of next-generation applications that will revolutionize everything from filmmaking to esports and beyond. 

Up until late 2020, wireless connectivity had not broken a speed of 5 gigabits per second (Gbps). That year, a team of engineers at Verizon were presented by Vice President of Device Technology Brian Mecum with the challenge to push this pursuit of wireless transmission speed into new territory. With a drive to be first through the gate and fueled by Verizon’s desire to push itself to new heights, they were able to reach a blazingly fast 5.06 Gbps, establishing an industry-leading position and setting the stage for even greater leaps forward.

Here’s how the effort to exceed 5 Gbps was achieved, in the words of some of the team members responsible.


What breaking 5 Gbps means

5G Ultra Wideband is the leading edge of high-speed wireless connectivity. Here’s why being a part of pushing its boundaries and setting new industry standards excites the Verizon team.

Paul:  It’s pretty exciting to be on the cutting edge. There’s so much talk about 5G and about what can be done with it. I think some of the things they’re going to be able to do with edge computing, the autonomous vehicles, some of the applications for medicine and things like that…things that can change people’s lives.

Ahmed: What excites me is looking at what the needs are for us to give our customers an immersive VR experience. How much data does an immersive VR experience require, or how much data does a 4K video require?

Garima: I’m definitely looking forward to health care advancements. Being able to make a difference in society from that perspective is a huge plus.


Chasing 5 Gbps

An order comes down from Verizon Vice-President of Device Technology Brian Mecum, to shoot for 5 Gbps. It’s the culmination of a long process of pushing wireless speed.

Paul: If you had the right combinations of bands and frequencies and features turned on, in theory you could hit 5 gigabits per second. The challenge came down to my team to make that happen in a real environment in the lab. We had other folks from within device technology, and we also had a couple folks from network planning that were involved.

Ahmed: This is something that we’ve been working on for two years, specifically to be able to hit 5 Gbps. If you think about it, we’ve been working on 5G from a standards perspective with the ecosystem, making sure that the technology evolves, for a while. We bought, and we acquired, millimeter wave spectrum. We’ve been engineering and building our 4G network and 5G network. Then, after that, there’s all the fiber investment that we’ve done connecting, building the intelligent edge network that brings the content closer to the customers. 

Garima: It’s the back of the paper napkin map — what is possible in theory. Then, you put all these devices and equipment in place. We really needed to squish the juice out of the technology. If it is theoretically possible, why can’t we see it? And being able to drill down to that detail is very satisfying to an engineer’s brain. My team and our larger device technology team were responsible for hitting the 5 gigabits per second target, and my role was to remove their roadblocks. Honestly, they did the hard work.


Peeling back layers on the onion

The team gets to work running tests and tweaking both hardware and software to push their limits. It’s an iterative process requiring a series of detailed adjustments, but Verizon’s engineers are up to the challenge.

Inside the lab

Here’s a look at the environment in which Verizon’s engineers broke the 5 Gbps barrier:

Paul: A feature called PDCP [Packet Data Convergence Protocol] aggregation had just fairly recently become available, which allows you to aggregate both the 4G and the 5G bandwidth or throughput on a single device. A lot of the discussion in the early planning was, did we have the hardware we needed and the capability to set such a configuration up in the lab? We did determine we had some work to do, but we were able to get that configuration set up.

Ahmed: I’m going to get 4.2 Gbps from millimeter wave radio. I’m going to get another 800 megabits per second from carrier aggregation of up to two or three bands from two or three other radios that we have. And I’m going to pull this together to give 5 Gbps.

Garima: We did our first speed test, and we got 3, 3.5. OK, let’s check the configuration on the site. Does it have all the carriers we asked for? Is it configured properly? Is the bandwidth correct? Is the right software on it, because there are certain features that can help us go that extra mile that we are looking for? Now, let’s break down the technology. How much is LTE giving us? How much is 5G giving? And this is not just one test. Every test is different, and every test is telling us different stories.

Paul: We would go into the lab, make an attempt, gather some data logs and share. And then there would be a lot of head scratching and going back and trying to figure out what else needed to be done. In the end, there were a number of configuration changes we had to make to various parts of the network. Even at the end, we had to jury-rig a little antenna setup for the device to hold the 4G signal as close as possible to the device to squeeze the last little bit out of it.


Hitting the 4.8 Gbps wall

After multiple tests and reconfigurations of both hardware and software, the team hits a wall 200 Mbps short of its goal, but is driven to overcome any obstacle.

Ahmed: It’s always cooler to be able to say five rather than 4.8.

Paul: It was frustrating. I think the team was almost ready to throw in the towel at one point with that. Folks had tried so hard and for so long that it was just feeling like we almost had hit a brick wall.

Garima: It was both happy and…not sad, but just hard to deliver that message to your team because your team has worked really hard to get to 4.8, and 4.8 is a lot of speed. They put their sweat and blood in it, but it wasn’t five, right?

Ahmed: We had to go back to the drawing board. We went back to our partners and said, “How can we optimize that system? What are the overheads that you can shave off?” We have a lot of test tools that we use, and they’re our eyes to the network and what exactly happens under the hood. So, we use these tools to just walk through every little bit of detail and be able to define what issues you can eliminate to get to five.

Paul: The 5G radios that we have are mounted on rolling TV stands. It was a process of, try it once, turn it a bit, tilt it a little bit towards the radio, try it again. There’s a lot of trial and error that was going on there. I think the last thing we had to do was make an adjustment to one of the parameters in this command that you sent to the device. It was just some kind of window size that was adjusted a little bit to get that last little tweak to get there.

Garima: Hardware-wise, we were pretty solid. How to align it to create that central beam to be able to utilize the technology to the max was important. And, of course, the software was where we had the biggest lift, working with our vendors to say, “This feature is working only 50%. We really need it to get it to 70%.” Figuring that portion out was more heavy lifting than the hardware, I would say.


Breaking the 5 Gbps barrier

Both hardware and software are tweaked to squeeze out more performance, and finally, they reach 5 Gbps. Separated by restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team experiences the moment remotely, celebrating before setting its sights on the next step.

Garima: Initially, we got it in a graph. I got this email: “Hey Garima, we hit 5G,” and I’m zooming in, in a happy disbelief. Can you give me the snapshot of the phone? Can you send me this? Can you send me that? It was ecstatic.

Paul: It was quite a relief, and exciting. If we were all at the lab at the same time, it probably would’ve been everybody high-fiving each other, but it was unusual in the sense that yeah, you don’t have the team all in one place like we would back in pre-COVID days.

Ahmed: It’s also a moment where… we’re a big team, so it’s good to be able to see how well we are communicating together and how well we come together to make something like this work. It kind of takes a village. 

Garima: First time ever — there’s no price for that. That “first” is ingrained in our culture and we’re very proud of it.

Ahmed: While we are super happy, we realize this was just halfway for us. Our aspiration is 10 Gbps. We said this two, three years ago, and we’re on a path to get there. This is a very important and very practical milestone that we matched, but there’s more work to do, more milestones to hit.

Paul: The lab keeps rolling along. I think we’re anticipating that the next challenge is going to come down once the features are available that would enable that. We’re ready for it when it comes.

Garima: The next target is 10 Gbps. When can we hit it? I spend some time giving kudos where it’s due, but after that, I’d say it’s fairly quick. Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we start again.


From Verizon:
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*5G Ultra Wideband available only in parts of select cities.Global claim from May 2020, based on Opensignal independent analysis of mobile measurements recorded during the period January 31 – April 30, 2020. © 2021 Opensignal Limited. RootMetrics® U.S. RootScore® Report: 2H 2020. Tested nat’l operators on all available network types. Experience may vary. Award is not endorsement.