By Don Clark
Many technology vendors hope to shape the next generation of cellular communications. Few people have as much riding on the outcome as Aicha Evans, who oversees Intel Corp.'s sales of wireless chips.
The Senegal-born executive, who was raised in Paris, faces the challenge of reversing years of disappointment as the Silicon Valley giant has sought to build a major business beyond chips for computers. Intel, despite years of engineering work and spending $1.4 billion to buy the cellular business of Infineon Technologies AG in 2010, was late supplying chips for current fourth-generation networks and has seen little traction in handsets compared with incumbents such as Qualcomm Inc.
"In the cellular world, it's been a difficult climb for us," said Ms. Evans.
But she and others see a new opening. Intel and competitors including Cisco Systems Inc., Huawei Technologies Co., Brocade Communications Inc. and MediaTek Inc. are betting they can build stronger positions when today's cellular networks move to the fifth technology generation, which is expected to reach consumers in most countries by 2020.
They are using Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week to unleash a flurry of products, partnerships and tests of 5G technologies. The hardware vendors are angling to expand their influence in a field where technology standards have long been set by companies like Qualcomm, Ericsson AB and Nokia Corp.
While many technical details remain to be worked out, there is widespread consensus on one point: the next transition won't be a simple replay of what happened in the past.
"4G to 5G is going to be much different," said Ken Cheng, Brocade's chief technology officer.
Like generational shifts in wireless technology, industry executives say, 5G should move data to smartphone users much faster. Download speeds of well over 1 gigabit per second are expected, at least 10 times faster than peak speeds for today's 4G LTE networks--and rates that most users experience that are well below that.
One implication of that speed increase, industry executives say, is that 5G technology could match or surpass the speed of wired networks using fiber-optic cable, paving the way to fast wireless Internet access for homes and offices in addition to mobile devices.
Another new thrust relates to applications where reliability and rapid response times are paramount, like control signals exchanged by cars in autonomous driving. The goal for 5G is for signals to arrive reliably in one millisecond--a thousandth of a second--compared with 10 to 15 milliseconds, said Chris Nicoll, a principal analyst at Analysys Mason, a market-research firm.
The 5G transition also is closely linked to the so-called Internet of Things, the buzz phrase for adding sensors, computing power and communications to everything from lightbulbs to drink vending machines. Such gadgets may only have to send a few bytes of data every few hours, but the number of connections for a typical cell site might go from hundreds of devices to millions, Mr. Nicoll said.
Those new applications may lead to not just greater aggregate data volume but substantially different traffic patterns, said Peter Jarich, an analyst at Current Analysis. So companies such as Cisco and Brocade are designing products for carrier data centers to help manage 5G traffic.
"5G is about a different economic model for layering out and scaling the network for new services," said Kelly Ahuja, senior vice president of Cisco's service provider business.
The companies that led past cellular transitions are determined to do so again. Qualcomm, the biggest maker of processors and modem chips, made a case at an analyst meeting last week that its years of 5G-related technology development and tests translate into a substantial head start over rivals.
"You realize that this is not something you can just jump in and do," said Matt Grob, Qualcomm's chief technology officer. "You have to build a mountain."
Companies also need to refine new technologies. Ericsson, which specializes in equipment used to manage cellular networks, on Thursday said it demonstrated 5G download speeds of 25 gigabits a second. Reaching that speed required large numbers of antennas to direct narrow beams of radio signals toward specific mobile users, said Hakan Andersson, who serves as 5G product manager for the Swedish company.
Others are developing their own technology based on antenna arrays that boost network capacity, such as a Silicon Valley startup called Blue Danube Systems, whose investors include AT&T Inc. "Almost everyone doing 5G has some sort of an array structure in mind," said Mark Pinto, its chief executive.
Intel's Ms. Evans thinks that, for companies aiming to play a key role in the transition from 4G to 5G, talent and relationships will be at least as important as new technologies. Intel has 10 to 20 times more people working on mobile and communications products than five years ago, she estimates, and is engaged in tests with influential carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc.
"Nobody is going to lead it alone," she said. "This is going to be about partnerships."
Write to Don Clark at email@example.com
Corrections & Amplifications
This item was corrected at 23:27 GMT to reflect that Intel paid $1.4 billion to buy the cellular business of Infineon Technologies AG. The original incorrectly said Intel bought Infineon.
This item was corrected February 23, 2016 at 11:43 a.m. ET because the original version incorrectly compared the number of people working on 5G to prior cellular technologies. An Intel Corp. executive estimates that the company has 10 to 20 times more people working on mobile and communications products than five years ago.