The next big thing is the network, says Alcatel-Lucent CTO

13 Nov 2014

Alcatel-Lucent CTO Marcus Weldon on stage in New Jersey today

BASKING RIDGE, NEW JERSEY: Alcatel-Lucent CTO Marcus Weldon has set his R&D researchers a challenge to boost network technologies by 10X to cope with a world of billions of connected things.

Weldon’s efforts dovetail with CEO Michel Combes’ strategy to restructure Alcatel-Lucent to be a force to be reckoned with in the construction of ultra-broadband networks. Combes yesterday said that the company has edged away from the jaws of bankruptcy and is two-thirds of the way towards its target of realising cost savings of €1bn by 2015.

Alcatel-Lucent’s R&D arm Bell Labs has a legacy that extends all the way back to the invention of the first practical telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, and includes the invention of the first transistor, lasers, movies with sound, transatlantic wireless communications, cellular technology and more.

It is a legacy that includes the creation of Unix and C and it is a legacy that has resulted in nine Nobel Prize winners and 18 Nobel Laureates, not to mention the odd Emmy and a Grammy.

Weldon told media and analysts at the Alcatel-Lucent Technology Symposium at Basking Ridge, New Jersey, that without the network none of the innovations, apps and trends shaping our world would be possible, which creates an urgency to make the networks from wireline to wireless capable of sustaining everything from cell phones to 3D printers and M2M devices.

“Bell Labs has been inventing the future for a very long time – the laser, cellular technology and so on. We should be good at predicting the future in technology. We are at the physical limits, therefore the network is the next big thing.

“Innovation and value will come into the network layer in a way that hasn’t been seen in 20 years. Bell Labs has always been focused on solving human communications problems. Every one of those Nobel Prizes was a by-product of solving a human problem. To know the future is to look at human communications problems.”

Weldon said that as the world moved from the telephone to the cell phone and from the desktop to the tablet computer, challenge now is to facilitate how communications is going to automate our entire lives.

Network 2020

“By 2020 70bn things will be connected. There is going to be a 440pc increase in cloud and data centre traffic between 2012 and 2017. Some 3.9bn people will be connected to the internet in 2017. 320m tablet computers will be sold in 2014, greater than laptops and desktop sales combined.

“To complete the experience for smartphone or tablet users people need to be able to connect to the cloud constantly.

“Between the device and the cloud there has to be an incredibly high performance network, low latency and high bandwidth.

“Therefore the network is the next big thing,” Weldon said, forecasting a return to investment in networks like that of the 1990s.

“The challenge is to build network architectures that reduce the cost per bit.”

Predicting the future Weldon said that consumers and enterprise users will experience networks that feel like they have been personalised just for them. A key starting point in this regard has been the invention of the software-defined VPN by Nuage.

“Enterprise communications has to change and it will change on the back of voice over LTE (VOLTE).

“We can’t just rely on Wi-Fi, we need small cell infrastructure and use that same infrastructure to talk to ‘things’ in terms of the internet of things. Each ‘thing’ is just another endpoint to communicate with.”

Weldon said that while many of these endpoints will be wirelessly connected the bigger picture will still depend on fibre optic wireline networks.

Inventing the future

If anything the future next big thing will consist of multiple network layers.

“It’s no accident that we ended up with the portfolio we ended up with. We saw this coming. The world is going all-IP with ultra broadband access.

“Bell Labs invents the future. We understand the needs of the telecoms industry very deeply and we have met that challenge head on in terms of vectoring, small cells and cloud band algorithms.”

Weldon said that Bell Labs has expanded its R&D footprint to locations including Shanghai and Tel Aviv.

“We are upping the game. We have challenged our resarchers to come up with one game changer per business line every year in a way that is absorbable by the business line.

“We have repartitioned Bell Labs and every research has to solve a problem 10X, and they are focused on bandwidth latency, scalability, network efficiency, cost. Projects include future communications, the network brain, the network of you, the future cube and more. The idea is that wireless and wireline will come together in one box.”

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