British Telecom leads the R&D quest

20 Nov 2002

BTexact is the new name for BT Labs, a venerable institution as well known on this side of the Atlantic as Bell Labs is on the other. It is based at a sprawling complex near Ipswich known as Adastral Park, a name derived from the Latin ad astra – ‘to the stars’.

As CEO of BTexact, Stewart Davies (pictured) is at the helm of an organisation that spends £300m sterling (€470m) annually on R&D (that is over £1m each working day) and employs 3,500 people, many of them top-flight engineers and scientists plucked from the best universities in the UK.

BTexact is one of four divisions within BT and even though it plays a supporting role to the other three, in its own way it is just as commercially driven. In a press briefing at Esat BT’s Dublin headquarters recently, Davies outlined the economics of the modern R&D institution. The £300m is not, as it turns out, a pot of money Davies is given every year to spend; it is ‘owned’ by the operating units, each of which contracts with BTexact for research services, as they would any other supplier. He described it as “a very strict customer-supplier relationship”.

He has his own budget for pure research, but even that is strictly linked to business objectives rather than being ‘blue sky’. “We have to show the linkages between the money we are spending and where we are actually taking the company,” explained Davies. “We can’t just, say, throw £3m at an interesting subject and hope to get a result; it has to be very business-based research.”

This is a relatively new approach. Some 10 years ago, it was not as business-led but there is good reason for it, according to Davies.
“One of the criticisms that can be levelled at research groups is, ‘Great technology, pity there is no market for it’. Part of the changes that we have introduced in our community is to make our technologies rooted in business. Understanding what the customer needs are and where the money comes from generally isn’t understood in technology communities,” he said.

So, forget pet projects or freewheeling, unfettered science; all voyages of discovery must start and end with the company.
“We try and predict either the areas that we are fairly confident are going to be important to the company or areas where the company may have problems in the years ahead. We try and predict what those problems will be and lay down some early work,” he noted.

Research these days, it seems, is not so much about inventing the wheel as predicting that it will be needed. The other big difference is that it is no longer the individual who is the inventor but the organisation. There are no Thomas Edisons or Robert Stephensons anymore; only well-staffed, well-financed research institutes chipping away at the coalface of technology, pushing forward the boundaries.

The romantics may not like it, but they cannot argue with its effectiveness. BTexact/BT Labs is credited with a number of important breakthroughs in the area of network communications. These include building the world’s first all IP (internet protocol) telephony network, in partnership with Nortel Networks and Cisco; conducting the world’s first ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) trial in Colchester 1994 and achieving 24Mb per second using very high speed digital subscriber line (VSDL) technology over a distance of 1km.

So, what will be the next breakthroughs to come from Adastral Park? One of the current projects exercising the brains of researchers is termed intelligent software creation. This involves applying artificial intelligence to the creation of software, a relatively new branch of research that has become known as web services. It is a concept that is notoriously hard to articulate, but Davies gave it a stab.

“Web services is the ability to put interfaces around existing pieces of software which notify the world, ie, the internet, that they exist and say, ‘This is what I do’. They then send requests out to the internet for other pieces of software to build into it.” The primary benefit of web services is that it allows new applications to be built quickly and cheaply.

Another promising area of research, this time in the wireless networking area, is microwave photonics. This research has a simple goal: to make the wireless local area network (WLAN) protocols and equipment independent of each other. Currently, organisations must upgrade their WLAN infrastructure every time a new protocol – such as the current 802.11b standard – is introduced. The science of microwave photonics promises to eliminate the need to upgrade, thus generating significant cost savings to users of wireless networks.

Looking at broader trends, Davies adds his voice to those who believe that it will be mobile technology that will have the biggest impact on our lives in coming years. “It is not about gizmos and nice PDAs; it’s about the applications sitting on top of them. It is the ability to link you, your education, your healthcare, etc, into devices that you own and then network that information to wherever it needs to be networked,” he said.

Inevitably broadband, too, featured prominently in his view of the future. But again, it is not the technology itself but the applications it enables that will have the most profound effect. He instanced the explosive growth of Bang cafes in South Korea. These are internet cafes with a difference. The difference being broadband which is taking computer games to a whole new level by enabling teams of people in cafes throughout the country to compete against each other online. The games themselves are of extraordinarily high multimedia quality thanks to the huge bandwidth and regularly draw crowds of spectators. The modern version of the local football league perhaps?

Davies clearly cannot envisage a future without technology permeating every aspect of our lives. Nor can he envisage a future without research itself, which is why governments must continue to invest in it, he argued.
“The research world is about the academic health and, therefore, the industrial health of the nation. If you don’t have research, my view is that the economy only goes one way and that is down.”