"If we don't prepare now for the next generation, we will soon reach the limits that 4G can offer," said Thibaut Kleiner, adviser to the Europe Union's digital agenda commissioner, Nelly Kroes.
"It comes down to a question of leadership in technological innovation," he told a conference.
The stakes could be enormous in a world increasingly reliant on mobile networks, a world in which Europe risks becoming a laggard -- its last big success in the field dates back to the creation of the GSM, or 2G, network at the end of the 1990s.
To get back in the game, the European Commission launched late last year a 5G public-private partnership to develop the new network.
Known as 5G PPP, it brings together equipment makers and network operators.
Brussels has allocated 700 million euros ($960 million) up to 2020 for the project, a sum that is to be matched by the private sector.
South Korea's science ministry announced last month the launch of a 5G development project with a budget of 1.6 billion won ($1.5 billion/1.1 billion euros).
"Countries in Europe, China and the US are making aggressive efforts to develop 5G technology ... and we believe there will be fierce competition in this market in a few years," the South Korean ministry said at the launch.
But beyond the commercial battle to come, network builders and handset manufacturers want to agree on a technological standard to allow economies of scale and global roaming, said Viktor Arvidsson, head of strategy for France at Swedish multinational Ericsson.
Such an agreement is the goal of METIS 2020 project, which brings together operators such as Orange or Telefonica and equipment makers like Alcatel Lucent and Huawei, the Chinese company that announced last year it would spend $600 million on 5G research and development by 2018.