Less than six months ago, Alcatel-Lucent's wireless business line CTO Michael Peeters blasted 5G contributors for a lack of vision.

5G, Peeters said, should not be a "dumping ground" for things that didn't make the cut in earlier generations of cellular networking.

Rather industry should invest its collective efforts into producing a truly next-generation network architecture to cater to the needs of mobile phone users and to the emerging Internet of Things.

Few might have predicted how far the conversation on 5G could shift in just six months – but it has.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona – the mobile industry's annual global gathering – 5G was a major talking point.

"This is an important year for 5G," head of wireless research at Alcatel-Lucent's Bell Labs, Tod Sizer, told Information Age from the show floor at Barcelona.

"I think that we're coming to a consensus on what is going to be important in the future.

"Helping meet people's expectations is driving a lot of the thinking and it's clear now that what is needed is a next generation [network architecture]."

Growing consensus on 5G was apparent in the number of white papers issued by various alliances and endorsed by blue-ribbon carriers, including Telstra in Australia.

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance laid out a 124-page tome that has the backing of Telstra's chief scientist Hugh Bradlow, among others. The EC-backed 5G-PPP produced a shorter paper, while other groups including METIS and 5GNOW were also represented at the congress.

The white papers laid out technical wishlists and timelines for developmental works: broadly speaking, 5G studies and research are set to continue this year, leading into standardisation works commencing sometime in 2016 and ultimately the realisation of commercial systems sometime around 2020.

Ovum service providers and markets analyst Paul Lambert highlighted the importance of the NGMN paper, in particular, and urged network equipment vendors to get behind it.

"Although the vendor community is not compelled to incorporate NGMN's requirements, doing so will promote the introduction of commonly agreed, interoperable, and cost-effective 5G systems in 2020 and soon after," Lambert said.

Telstra's first-mover advantage

Telstra – which over a long period of time has established its credentials as a first-mover on new wireless standards – used this year's Mobile World Congress to stake its claim on 5G.

"While a 5G world is some time away, it is important to begin key foundational work now to help us to better understand this emerging new technology and what it can do for customers across Australia and the world," Telstra's group managing director of networks Mike Wright said.

"We are keen to work together with our network partner Ericsson to drive the standards, test new concepts and research the new architectures."

Telstra will begin work with Ericsson from the second quarter of 2015. The telco's staff will travel to Ericsson facilities in Sweden to "test and analyse" 5G research outputs, collaborate on standards definition and work out how the core network needs to evolve to support 5G-enabled services.

Telstra has also committed to a "5G field trial in Australia which will include opportunities for Telstra's industry partners and customers to experience the potential of 5G". No timeframe was discussed for this trial.

Transition tactics

Erik Dahlman, a senior expert in radio access technologies at Ericsson Research in Sweden, told Information Age that the transition from 4G LTE to 5G networks would be "gradual".

"The transition to 5G won't be an instant step at some point in time but will really be a gradual evolution to new technology and new capabilities and possibilities," Dahlman said.

Some vendors, such as Huawei, are promoting technology designed to bridge 4G and 5G networks.

"On the road to 5G, many innovations will emerge and many of them should be applied and integrated into existing 4G networks to enhance network performance and user experience," Huawei's deputy chairman and rotating CEO Ken Hu told the congress.

"In Huawei, this is why we are working closely with several operators on 4.5G solutions while heavily investing in 5G research."

Ovum's Lambert believes industry experience in driving the transition from 3G to 4G will put it in good stead to map a path to 5G definition, standardisation and – eventually – adoption.

"With 4G technology, the industry has shown that it can work together to define and commercialise commonly agreed new technology standards whose commercial success is not hampered by company-specific needs," he said.

"In the process it has laid a solid foundation for work on future technology; as 2020 approaches, now is the time to build on this."