The Interview: Mark Castleman, Bell Labs (video)

12 Nov 2014

Mark Castleman, entrepreneur-in-residence, Bell Labs, addresses the recent Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin. Photo by Conor McCabe Photography

While OTT players such as Facebook and Snapchat appear to threaten the fabric of services such as voice and SMS, the pendulum will ultimately swing back in telecom operators’ favour, says Bell Labs’ Mark Castleman.

Bell Labs’ entrepreneur-in-residence Castleman was speaking with after the recent Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin where he announced that Ireland will be the first place in the world where Bell Labs will hold its Impact Series of IP mash-ups between universities and start-ups.

He also predicted that the next massive US$50bn technology acquisition is most likely to feature a telecoms play, rather than purely an app or a social network.

Bell Labs has been synonymous with innovation in telecoms from the 19th century when Alexander Graham Bell was credited with inventing the first practical telephone. The company is still a key innovator winning several Nobel Prizes and shaping the 20th and 21st century through technologies like moving pictures with sound, the continuing evolution of broadband and mobile communications, the invention of the UNIX and C languages through to vectoring that makes fibre-speeds over 100 year-old copper possible.

Recently the company showed it was possible to transmit 10Gbps speeds over 30 metres of twisted pair copper.

‘Solving tangible problems’

On the motivation to bring Bell Labs closer to start-ups and entrepreneurship Castleman said: “Bell Labs has this great history and it was in many ways perfected it because it was an organisation solving tangible problems. These pursuits produced incredible innovations and so what’s happened over time is that it has collapsed into pure research. My job is to break out of that, add new ingredients and bring that to the marketplace; taking advantage of the research that has been done and representing it to the marketplace.”

Castleman said that with all the hype around companies ranging from Facebook to WhatsApp, Snapchat, Airbnb and Uber, there is a tendency to believe mobile and fixed operators are on the back foot. This, he says, is not the case.

“In the US AT&T is our biggest operator – it does more revenue in one month than the entire over-the-top (OTT) market.

“On one hand they (the operators) do need to be concerned. The OTTs are innovating on experience. AT&T has a real need to continue to make sure the network performs. That’s very expensive. They know they will lose their user if their network doesn’t work so they focus on that.

“In some way they missed the opportunity to pursue experience as a goal, and the OTT market has absorbed that. I think the pendulum will swing back toward experience being normalised and the carriers will then become reinvigorated by the fact they will have caught up on experience, still have their networks, users are happy, then what? I think that they should be concerned about not being left behind but don’t think they should panic about being left on the shore because they are the vehicle that is going to go into the future.”

He said it is important to remember the mobile and fixed line operators are the transport for the data that OTT providers depend on.

“Think of it as a a cruise ship. OTT is like the various activities you can do on the deck of the ship but the carrier is the the ship itself.”

Interview with Mark Castleman, entrepreneur-in-residence, Bell Labs

Interview with Mark Castleman, entrepreneur-in-residence, Bell Labs

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years