Soon to be a thing of the past?
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Tech laggards team up to regain lost ground in creating infrastructure for the 'internet of things.'

By Geoffrey Smith
June 16, 2014

The European Union and South Korea have joined forces in an attempt to get ahead of the game in developing ultra-fast fifth-generation wireless communications networks.

The two sides said in Seoul Monday they had agreed to work together to establish a global definition of 5G and to cooperate in research.  The agreement covers governments, research and educational institutes and private companies, and aims to forge a consensus on key functionalities for the new standard by the end of next year.

Work on 5G will be driven by the need to deliver another huge increase in network capacity to satisfy ever-growing future demand not only from smartphones and video streaming applications,  but also from the “internet of things”–a shorthand for the increasing interconnection of everything from domestic appliances to vehicles and even livestock.  Industry experts expect the number of internet-connected devices to double to around 50 billion in the five years between 2015 and 2020.  The UK’s telecom regulator, Ofcom, estimates that data demand by 2030 could be 80 times higher than it was in 2012.

For Europe, the deal represents an effort to make up for ground it has lost to U.S. and Asian competitors, notably China. European operators had led the world in developing the GSM standard for mobile communications in the 1990s, but are now badly lagging China in particular in the roll-out of 4G wireless technology.

“The two sides recognised the great importance of timely developing (sic) the next generation of mobile communication networks (5G), because the communications infrastructure will be the backbone of the future digital economy,” European Commissioner Neelie Kroes said in a statement.

The deal opens the door to possible cooperation between Europe’s mobile network giants such as Ericsson, Nokia Siemens and France’s Alcatel-Lucent SA ALU and Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co.  SSNLF , Apple Inc.’s AAPL biggest rival in the global market for smartphones and other mobile devices.

Just over a year ago, Samsung said it had made a major breakthrough in developing 5G technology, having found a way to increase the speed with which large amounts of data can be transmitted. It still reckons that 5G won’t be widely available for another six years at least.

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