Internet-of-things means everything from bus stops to fridges can connect to the mobile network.

The next generation of mobile technology is still at least five years away. But when it arrives New Zealand could be among the first countries to get it. The telecommunications industry still hasn't nailed down a detailed plan for 5G, but Alex Wang, Huawei vice-president of wireless marketing, says his company is determined to play a leading role in its development.

Speaking at Huawei's leafy 2sq km Shenzhen campus, Wang says 4G is now mainstream mobile technology. It works well but there's already a need for something more.

Wang says the earlier move from 3G to 4G meant moving from networks made for voice calls to networks optimised for data traffic.

"From the very beginning we designed 4G as a data network. All the services are treated as data services," he says.


Since 4G was developed new needs have emerged requiring higher levels of performance and a different focus.

The first mobile phone networks connected people to each other. Then they connected people to each other and the internet. Today there are 7 billion mobile phone connections worldwide, roughly one for every person on the planet.

Now communications is no longer just about people. The rise of machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the internet-of-things means everything from bus stops to fridges to irrigation systems can be connected to the mobile network.

Because there are many more things than people, that means an explosion in the number of connections. Wang expects there will be hundreds of billions of connections within a decade.

Dealing with more connections is one reason telecommunications companies need 5G. Wang says the formal definition of 5G has yet to be agreed, but one need is for it to support massive connectivity.

The goal is to have cell sites able to cope with one million connections in 1sq km - effectively that means one mobile device per square metre. By comparison today's 4G cell sites might handle 1000 to 3000 devices.

Unlike mobile handsets M2M devices send a trickle of data. A temperature monitoring sensor might only report a few bytes of data each hour.

Wang says the internet-of-things includes driverless cars and aerial drones that will need a steady flow of data and quick reactions. Data must turn around fast. Driverless cars facing road hazards can't wait too long for the next instruction.

The technical term for turning data around quickly is latency. Cars and drones need low latency. Typically the latency on today's 4G mobile is between 50 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds (ms) - that's not fast enough for safe driverless cars.

Wang says the goal for 5G is to get that figure to 1ms.

If moving from 3G to 4G mobile was like going from dial-up internet to broadband, then the move from 4G to 5G will be like going from copper to fibre.

Wang says as well as increasing the number of connections and reducing latency the 5G goal is for data speeds of 10 Gigabits per second. That's faster than today's highest performing domestic internet connections.

He says to get that level of performance 5G will need to make better use of the available radio frequency spectrum.

There are two more ways 5G differs from earlier network technologies. Wang says the networks will be designed to have new backhaul standards. Backhaul is the term used to describe how data traffic travels from a cell tower to the internet.

Fast data speeds, low latency and higher connection numbers all point to a need for a bigger pipe from the tower to the internet.

Another feature of 5G is that the wireless network will also be able to handle its own backhaul. The network is also self-healing, if there's a break then traffic is automatically routed around the disruption.

As well as making M2M communications practical 5G will enable what Wang calls "rich services".

So you may be on a voice call and be able to switch screens at the same time to watch a presentation or collaborate on a document with a colleague while talking to them. He says these tasks are possible with 4G, but will work so much better with 5G because it is flexible to all services.

Wang says 5G goes beyond just a new wireless network.

"It will change the world. The 5G network will support the whole of the information society, so Huawei will treat it like a strategic target not only one kind of technology," he says.

"5G technology isn't just radio, it's systematic. It will connect to everything. We're investing a lot. In the future most of Huawei's R&D will work on 5G."

Huawei is uniquely placed to do that. It's the world's leading telecommunications network equipment company and the third largest smartphone brand. No other company straddles both markets.

Close to half of the company's 140,000 workforce and 10 to 15 per cent of its revenue are dedicated to research and development. Even before there's a formal standards group to define 5G, Huawei has 500 people at nine centres around the world working full-time on 5G research.

While Wang is clear that Huawei aims to lead the international charge towards 5G, he says it doesn't want a monopoly. He says this will only work if there's a healthy ecosystem around the technology and that means others will also need to succeed.

Telecommunications carriers spent hundreds of millions of dollars building 4G networks.

Wang says his company is aware that not all of them will want to invest similar sums in a 5G network before the previous one has washed its face.

"The 5G networks may be five years away, but many 4G networks are less than five years old. Networks are expensive to build, carriers would like to get 10 years from their investment before having to build a new one," he says.

To get around this Huawei is working on an interim step to ease the path to 5G. At the moment it doesn't have a name - Wang calls it 4.5G but says it could eventually go by a more marketing friendly handle such as 4G Enhanced.

"There's no need to build a totally new network to get some of the technologies that will be in 5G," he says.

"Users may need to change their handsets to get 4.5G. We'll need to come up with a new chipset, we're working on that. The idea is that carriers will be able to get to 4.5G with a simple software upgrade. It's not a fundamental change."

Huawei says 4.5G will take users part-way to 5G. Normal 4G performance is around 100Mbps. It's possible to stretch this to over 400Mbps with existing technology, 4.5G will boost speeds to around 1Gbps. Latency will come down from 50-100ms to around 10ms.

Moving to 4.5G still requires broad collaboration across the industry.

Wang says this is happening.

"We're already discussing the idea with other technology vendors. Huawei is working on suitable handsets, the rest is down to the other handset companies."

• Bill Bennett travelled to Shenzhen and Singapore courtesy of Huawei.