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Science

Despite 4G 'pain' UK invests in 5G future

A new research center at Surrey University in the UK is set to become a global center of innovation in 5G mobile technology. Despite a slow 4G rollout, Britain is investing millions.

With mobile traffic expected to increase a thousand-fold by 2020, the demands of the future mobile user will be high. Superfast internet on the move, video calling, and instant access to the Cloud will all become standard.

In Britain, a 43 million euro ($55 million) 5G Innovation Center at the University of Surrey - funded by government and industry grants - will tackle the technical challenges to make that happen.

Professor Rahim Tafazolli, who heads the university's Center for Communications Systems Research, says "5G is not anything new to us." His team has been working on new mobile technologies for several years.

The goal of the center will be to set the standard for next generation mobile technology, enabling download speeds of up to 200Mbps for each user - many times more than today's speeds. 5G aims to achieve this with a more efficient use of the radio spectrum.

Professor Rahim Tafazolli is one of the UK's leading mobile communications experts (Photo: Robin Powell/DW)

Professor Rahim Tafazolli is one of the UK's leading mobile communications experts

Tafazolli believes that to deliver 5G services in Britain, there will have to be a network of hundreds of thousands of small cells across the country, all connected to a backbone network, possibly of fibre optic cable.

The cells may be as small as today's wireless routers, and fixed to buildings or lampposts.

Cell distribution

5G smartphones will constantly choose between these cells to find those providing the best data connection, and manage multiple data sources.

The first people to experience 5G services, perhaps anywhere in the world - if they have the right handset or receiver - will be students of the university and the local residents of Guildford, where the new network will be tested in the coming years.

The University of Surrey - it will host the world's first center dedicated to 5G research (Photo: Robin Powell/DW)

The University of Surrey will host the world's first center dedicated to 5G research

Tafazolli's team is also looking at unused parts of the radio spectrum to carry the new services.

Where most of today's cellular networks use bandwidths in the 1-2GHz range, Tafazolli says bandwidths as short as 50GHz may be the key to future mobile provision.

Some researchers believe that using even higher bandwidths will lead to a "wireless renaissance."

"There's this enormous untapped spectrum up at 28GHz, 38GHz, 220GHz," says Professor Theodore Rappaport, who heads the Wireless Internet Center for Advanced Technology at NYU-Poly in New York.

"We can go much, much higher in the frequency band," says Rappaport, "and by doing so we get tremendous amounts of bandwidth - ten to a hundred times of all of the cellular bandwidth available today."

Faster mobile communication brings the promise of greater riches for those behind the technology, as well as those countries that are ready to use it.

Putting your phone where your mouth is

The British government and the local telecoms industry don't have the best record - they have been roundly criticized for a rollout of 4G services that have been hampered by legal wranglings and a lack of available spectrum.

The first local commercial 4G networks appeared in London, Reading and Swindon. Following the government's pledge in October to speed up the process, the first national rollout has only just begun.

But in the trillion dollar mobile telecoms market, the race to become the future global standard for 5G is a high stakes game, according to Professor Jens Zander from Stockholm's Royal Institute of Technology.

"There is no competition anymore - dominant technologies take over," says Zander, citing the example of LTE (Long-Term Evolution), which has become the standard for 4G services.

To grab a larger share of the telecoms market, the UK will have to prove it can compete alongside countries like Korea, China and the US, where so much innovation has happened over the past decade.

Sign outside Guildford Train Station, UK (Photo: Robin Powell/DW)

Half an hour by train from central London, Guildford hopes to become a new tech hub

The University of Surrey believes it can live up to the high expectations.

The university's director of research and enterprise support, Keith Robson, told DW he expects to see a "raft of companies" starting up in a cluster around the university, "all involved in new technologies and services connected with 5G."

David Delpy, the chief executive of the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council says the center will "provide the vital tools to help the UK's best scientists make new discoveries more quickly and drive future innovation."

Many in Britain's tech-friendly government - which has already invested tens of millions in video games and superfast broadband - will be hoping Delpy is right, and that next generation mobile telecoms will help the UK exit its current economic slump.

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