GUILDFORD, Britain â On the outskirts of this sleepy commuter town just south of London, plans are underway to build the fastest cellphone network in the world.
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 worldâs 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 â including smartwatches and tiny sensors on home appliances â to the new cellphone network, and automakers could potentially test driverless cars around the suburban campus.
âA lot of the technology already works in a laboratory environment,â said Rahim Tafazolli, director of the universityâs research center that oversees the 5G project, which includes almost 70 powerful radio antennas around the two-square-mile campus. âNow, we have to prove it works in real life.â
The work by Dr. Tafazolli and his team puts them at the heart of a heated race. Fueled by peopleâs insatiable appetite for accessing videos, social media and other entertainment on their mobile devices, many of the worldâs 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, high-speed Internet.
âEveryone is rushing to demonstrate they are a leading player for 5G,â said 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 that begins on Monday. Most of the worldâs 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 â including driverless cars, remote-controlled drones and autonomous robots balancing balls on tablets â 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.
âIf we miss the chance to make our networks relevant, it will be a disaster,â said Ulf Ewaldsson, Ericssonâs chief technology officer. âThe billion-dollar question is what will a 5G network look like?â
Despite companiesâ efforts to outspend each other, that question remains unanswered.
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 usersâ 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 take years.
As a result, carriers, telecom equipment makers and tech companies are lobbying global-standard bodies and national lawmakers to promote their own technologies over rivalsâ, 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 peopleâs needs.
âA lot of this is about carriers and equipment makers looking for new ways to make money,â said Thomas Husson, an analyst at Forrester Research in Paris. âConsumers shouldnât expect great things until after 2020.â
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 in Tokyo.
âThe only way of learning is by doing,â 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. âItâs about putting pressure on ourselves to move forward with specifics, not just theories.â
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 â expected to start in Austin, Tex., by the end of 2016 â that could offer mobile speeds roughly 100 times faster than its current offering.âWe will be ready when itâs ready,â said John Donovan, AT&Tâs chief strategy officer, who added that traditional rivals like Verizon and new arrivals like Google could eventually compete to offer 5G services. âEverywhere you donât solve a problem, someone else might step in.â
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 â 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.
âIn the race to 5G, everyone wants to be first,â he said.