Heated race to be first in ultrafast 5G technology

A worker checking an antenna, one of about 70 that are part of the University of Surrey research centre's 5G project.
A worker checking an antenna, one of about 70 that are part of the University of Surrey research centre's 5G project.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Tech giants spending billions to boost mobile Internet speeds by over 100 times than now

GUILDFORD (Britain) • On the outskirts of this sleepy commuter town just south of London, plans are under way to build the fastest cellphone network in the world.

The work is being done at the University of Surrey, a leafy campus dotted with rundown Brutalist- style buildings. 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, against the eight minutes or so 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 carmakers could potentially test driverless cars around the suburban campus.

"A lot of the technology already works in a laboratory environment," said Professor Rahim Tafazolli, director of the university's research centre that oversees the 5G project, which includes almost 70 powerful radio antennas around the 5 sq km campus. "Now, we have to prove it works in real life."

The work by Prof Tafazolli and his team puts them at the heart of a heated race. Fuelled by insatiable demand to access videos, social media and other entertainment on 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 this next-generation ultrafast wireless technology.

The competition has led to research worth billions of dollars from telecommunications equipment makers such as Ericsson of Sweden and Huawei of China, which are hoping to secure lucrative contracts to upgrade mobile Internet infrastructure. Those plans have become even faster paced as tech giants including Google consider their ambitions for the fastest high-speed Internet.

"Everyone is rushing to demonstrate they are a leading player for 5G," said Mr Bengt Nordstrom, co-founder of Northstream, a telecom consulting firm, in Stockholm.

The efforts around 5G will be on display at Mobile World Congress, a four-day tech and telecom event in Barcelona, Spain, that began yesterday. Most of the world's largest operators and device makers are expected to announce their latest wireless technology, including smartphones, wearable products and digital applications.

Not to be outdone, telecom manufacturers are demonstrating 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 technology is ever more important as operators consider cutting investment in the face of a global economic downturn.

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 that users' mobile connections do not become patchy when travelling overseas. So, carriers, telecom equipment makers and tech companies are lobbying global standard bodies and national lawmakers to promote their own technologies over rivals'.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Heated race to be first in ultrafast 5G technology'. Print Edition | Subscribe