The gleaming metal and glass 5G laboratory being assembled on a campus at the University of Surrey, a few miles outside Guildford, speaks to British ambitions when it comes to building the next generation of mobile internet technology.

While many mobile phone users are only just upgrading to faster 4G networks, telecoms equipment providers are looking ahead to the next generation of mobile internet technology.

Yet companies such as Vodafone and BT have not given the university funding to develop the technologies out of scholarly love. They are commercial partners that have bought a stake in any future profits generated by the centre as well as the chance to use the technology.

They are not the only companies racing to develop 5G. Labs run by Huawei, Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung are working flat out to produce the precious global patents that will underpin the future of mobile connectivity.

Most hope to have some form of the technology in testing by 2018.

But while previous generations of mobile have been about making the internet faster, 5G will go one step further, according to Professor Rahim Tafazolli, head of 5G research at the University of Surrey.

He says that it is expected to make the internet fast enough to make possible a whole host of new applications, from connected vehicles to the connective devices that will enable the internet of things.

“5G will be the start of a new way to think about communications,” says Prof Tafazolli.

Ericsson believes there will be up to 50bn connected devices globally by 2022, when the technology is expected to start being rolled out commercially. The implications are profound.

Imagine, for example, a self-driving car that relied on a steady but constant stream of information beamed via the internet to operate. Unless the infrastructure that enabled connectivity was robust enough to allow information to be accessed all the time, it would be impossible for the car to work.

Network technology tends to evolve every 10 years. The first generation cellular network was launched in the 1980s and supported voice services only. It drove early mobile phone adoption but was problematic, with eavesdropping and cloning common. Using a phone abroad was impossible.

In the 1990s, 2G became widespread and was able to support far more users and was more secure. This allowed the sending of “text messages”, and consumers were able to roam outside of their home country.

The early 2000s saw the emergence of 3G, which supported high-speed data services as consumers increasingly began using broadband and the internet on mobile devices. A new breed of smartphone, capable of supporting video and mobile television, was born.

From 2010, 4G allowed operators to use spectrum more efficiently, which meant the speed of accessing mobile data was about 10 times faster than 3G.

The next generation will be about more than the mobile phone. It will be about providing connectivity over the airwaves to billions of devices that in future will require access to the internet, ranging from driverless cars to smart cities.

This latest shift partly explains the rationale behind the €15.6bn acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent by Nokia.

A 5G sign sits on display in a hallway at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. The event, which generates several hundred million euros in revenue for the city of Barcelona each year, also means the world for a week turns its attention back to Europe for the latest in technology, despite a lagging ecosystem. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson and Huawei set out their visions of how 5G could work © Bloomberg

“The industry needs to prepare for 5G,” says Rajeev Suri, chief executive of Nokia. “It will come sooner than people expect and it will be bigger than people expect.”

Regional authorities in Europe and Asia have also supported local efforts with the aim of creating global standards based around domestic technologies that can be exported.

Among the projects they have backed is the 5G Public and Private Partnership (5G-PPP), a €1.4bn joint initiative between the European telecoms industry, the European Commission and Huawei of China.

While any useful technology generally needs to be lent to rival groups under fair and reasonable terms, there is big money at stake in owning the patents for the next generation of mobile services.

Networks will also need to be improved and reconfigured, which will also mean valuable sales for the equipment vendors in future.

But one problem is that there is no standard definition for what 5G will be. The risk is that companies will end up using different services.

At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the annual telecoms event, companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson and Huawei, and even the EU, set out in white papers and demonstrations their visions of how it could work.

South Korea’s SK Telekom showed off a 5G robot. Ericsson had a remote controlled earth mover. But these seemed gimmicky — and hardly beyond the capabilities of existing 4G connectivity.

Experts normally try to describe 5G with reference to speed in terms of gigabits per second. Scientists talk about “peak” data rates of 10 Gbit/s — 10 times faster than 4G — although the Surrey university has trialled speeds of 1 Tbit/s (terabit per second).

Capacity — the volume of data flow — is estimated to be anywhere between 100 and 1,000 times higher than 4G, and the demand for data is expected to rise 1000-fold over the next decade.

But Prof Tafazolli says the key could be latency, the amount of time it takes for data to get through the system and reach a device. 5G services will need to respond in a single millisecond — about 50 times faster than 4G — to make real-time applications such as self-driving cars possible.

“There will be no delay — an instant response from the network, which will be mission critical for the connected digital society,” he says.

Get alerts on European companies when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article