Until as late as last year, the hype around the fifth generation of wireless network technology was privately dismissed by many in the telecoms industry as still some years away.
That has all changed. The rhetoric from companies, governments including the US and China, security experts and smartphone makers has been ramped up to fever pitch.
According to its proponents, not only could 5G, the successor to the current 4G network, transform consumer connectivity with download speeds up to 100 times faster than today, it could be worth £200 bn to the UK over the next decade if it emerges as a market leader. Failure to capitalise on the boom could threaten national security as Chinese telecoms providers gain ground in Western markets.
Before 2018, some in the industry were wary of overselling 5G. One industry source described telecoms firms as “hostile”, because of the technological challenges. A senior executive from Vodafone called it “overhyped”.
Now, however, the fifth generation of wireless networks is being hailed as an enabler of all manner of future technology, from superfast downloads of 4K films, to smarter driverless cars and connected cities.
“The desire for 5G was to enable a raft of new applications beyond just human connectivity,” says Colin Alexander, a marketing specialist at Arm, the chip manufacturer.
“We didn’t build the [4G] network for machines, personal assistants, cars,” says Aicha Evans, a senior executive at Intel. “Now we have been at it for five years … in ten years it will become ubiquitous.”
Companies are already using 5G to market handsets. EE is planning to set up 5G networks in 16 UK cities, Samsung is expected to launch a 5G smartphone in 2019 with US networks Verizon and AT&T, and China’s Huawei has confirmed it is building a foldable, 5G smartphone for 2019. Intel is rumoured to be supplying chips to Apple’s 2020 5G smartphone, while telecoms firms such as Ericsson and Nokia are also vying for deals. The technological race has stoked geopolitical tensions between the US, China and Europe, however.
The US is regarded as having led the way for the past decade in mobile technology, giving companies such as Facebook and Uber, a head start in the app revolution. Missing out on the rising tide of 5G is not an option.
In recent months the race has become a national security debate. China’s Huawei, which has undercut the former telecoms market leaders, has positioned itself as a key player.