5G Is a New Frontier for Mobile Carriers and Tech Companies
GUILDFORD, England — On the outskirts of this sleepy commuter town just south
of London, plans are underway to build the fastest cellphone network in the
The work is being done at the University of Surrey, where a leafy campus is
dotted with rundown Brutalist-style buildings. Here, researchers and some of
the world’s biggest tech companies, including Samsung and Fujitsu, are
collaborating to offer mobile Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than
anything now available.
Their work on so-called fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless technology is set to
be completed in early 2018 and would, for example, let students download entire
movies to smartphones or tablets in less than five seconds, compared with as
much as eight minutes with current fourth-generation, or 4G, technology.
Companies also could connect millions of devices — including smartwatches and
tiny sensors on home appliances — to the new cellphone network, and automakers
could potentially test driverless cars around the suburban campus.
“A lot of the technology already works in a laboratory environment,” said Rahim
Tafazolli, director of the university’s research center that oversees the 5G
project, which includes almost 70 powerful radio antennas around the
two-square-mile campus. “Now, we have to prove it works in real life.”
The work by Dr. Tafazolli and his team puts them at the heart of a heated race.
Fueled by people’s insatiable appetite for accessing videos, social media and
other entertainment on their mobile devices, many of the world’s largest
carriers, like AT&T and NTT DoCoMo of Japan, are rushing to be the first to
offer customers this next-generation ultrafast wireless technology.
The competition has led to research worth billions of dollars from
telecommunications equipment makers like Ericsson of Sweden and Huawei of
China, which are hoping to secure lucrative contracts to upgrade the mobile
Internet infrastructure of operators like AT&T from the United States and China
Mobile in Asia. Those plans have become even faster paced as tech giants
including Google consider their own ambitions for the latest, and fastest,
“Everyone is rushing to demonstrate they are a leading player for 5G,” said
Bengt Nordstrom, co-founder of Northstream, a telecom consulting firm, in
The efforts around 5G will be on display at Mobile World Congress, a four-day
tech and telecom event in Barcelona that begins on Monday. Most of the world’s
largest operators and device makers like Samsung are expected to announce their
latest wireless technology, including smartphones, wearable products and
digital applications at the trade show.
Not to be outdone, telecom manufacturers also have announced glitzy
demonstrations — including driverless cars, remote-controlled drones and
autonomous robots balancing balls on tablets — to showcase their 5G
credibility. The need to persuade carriers to buy the latest wireless
technology has become ever more important as operators consider cutting
investment plans in the face of a global economic downturn.
“If we miss the chance to make our networks relevant, it will be a disaster,”
said Ulf Ewaldsson, Ericsson’s chief technology officer. “The billion-dollar
question is what will a 5G network look like?”
Despite companies’ efforts to outspend each other, that question remains
A global standard for 5G wireless technology will not be finished before 2019,
at the earliest. Companies worldwide must agree on how their networks talk to
each other, so users’ mobile connections do not become patchy when traveling
overseas. That involves lengthy negotiations over what type of radio waves the
new technology should use, among other complicated global agreements, which can
As a result, carriers, telecom equipment makers and tech companies are lobbying
global-standard bodies and national lawmakers to promote their own technologies
over rivals’, according to industry executives and telecom analysts. Because of
this jockeying, a widespread rollout of 5G networks is not expected until well
into the next decade.
Some analysts question why carriers are focusing on the next generation of
wireless technology when many parts of the world, particularly in emerging
markets, still suffer from achingly slow mobile Internet access. And industry
experts say mobile Internet speeds in much of the developed world, especially
in places like South Korea, where connections are often comparable to
traditional broadband, already meet people’s needs.
“A lot of this is about carriers and equipment makers looking for new ways to
make money,” said Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research in Paris.
“Consumers shouldn’t expect great things until after 2020.”
These challenges have not stopped companies from staking a claim in hopes of
being at the forefront of 5G.
That is particularly true ahead of major global sporting events like the
Olympics and the World Cup, at which carriers and national governments want to
promote their technological know-how. At the 2018 World Cup, which will be held
in Russia, for instance, the local operators MegaFon and MTS are expected to
test 5G-style services, including ultrafast mobile Internet, even without
global standards in place.
The Korean mobile operator KT also plans to offer its own version of 5G
technology at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and NTT
DoCoMo has said it will have similar trials ready for the 2020 Summer Olympics
“The only way of learning is by doing,” said Mats Svardh, head of networks at
the Scandinavian carrier TeliaSonera, which will test its own 5G technology in
both Stockholm and Tallinn, Estonia, in 2018. “It’s about putting pressure on
ourselves to move forward with specifics, not just theories.”
United States carriers have also jumped on the 5G bandwagon, partly to offer
people new services as current mobile speeds have become relatively
interchangeable between major operators nationwide.
Last year, Verizon Wireless announced that it would start testing new wireless
technology in 2016 in order to offer new services, including potentially
ultrafast mobile Internet, sometime next year. Last month, AT&T countered with
its own tests — expected to start in Austin, Tex., by the end of 2016 — that
could offer mobile speeds roughly 100 times faster than its current
offering.“We will be ready when it’s ready,” said John Donovan, AT&T’s chief
strategy officer, who added that traditional rivals like Verizon and new
arrivals like Google could eventually compete to offer 5G services. “Everywhere
you don’t solve a problem, someone else might step in.”
For Dr. Tafazolli, of the University of Surrey, whose team started working on
5G in late 2011, these battles have led to an increasing number of companies
offering support — including the use of high-speed computer servers, costly
radio antennas and millions of dollars of financing to research and build the
next-generation wireless network on his college campus, he said. Their primary
goal: to test their latest technology in a real-world setting.
“In the race to 5G, everyone wants to be first,” he said.