When Marcus Weldon, Alcatel-Lucent's (NASDAQ: ALU) CTO, was also named president of Bell Labs in early November, the move signaled the company's intent to leverage R&D to propel its Shift Plan restructuring strategy and align research activities with its roadmap for commercial products.
In an interview with Australia's iTnews, Weldon explained why the two management roles have been combined. "The thesis is this is the right time to have the vision piece--which is CTO--combined with the research piece. Frankly that's the way it was always constructed in the great eras [of Bell Labs]," said Weldon, who has been Alcatel-Lucent's CTO since 2009.
"I'm incredibly optimistic that this is the next great era of Bell Labs," he added. "It's a little bit arrogant to state that, but on the other hand I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't believe it were true."
Founded in 1925, Bell Labs' innovations include the transistor, data networking, solar cells, lasers, communications satellites, Unix, the C programming language and more. Of course, Bell Labs also installed the first commercial cellular network in Chicago during the 1970s.
Since those pioneering days, however, the labs' mission got a bit diluted. "Bell Labs lost its way in the late 1990s until recently. It didn't really know what to innovate on, because its parent was in flux, as was the industry," said Weldon in a December news briefing conducted in London and reported on by Light Reading.
Now that the telecom industry is undergoing a convergence that brings together telco and IT functions, including technology initiatives such as software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV), Weldon said "there is much greater certainty of what this industry is all about."
Alcatel-Lucent confirmed in October that it would cut a further 10,000 jobs worldwide by 2015 as part of its Shift Plan, which repositions the network equipment vendor as an IP networking and high-speed broadband specialist. It is believed that only about 700 people remain at Bell Labs, which Weldon has indicated is a third of earlier staffing levels. While Bell Labs is not expected to boost staffing significantly, the unit is looking to bring in fresh talent with new perspectives and Silicon Valley smarts.
Weldon told iTnews that any new Bell Labs hires will need to know how to solve not just an obvious problem but also recognize that "the offshoot of that problem [is] the answer to something else."
Referencing 5G research, Weldon said scientists should target the "problem" of achieving a 100-fold increase in wireless capacity, not "solving the 5G problem".
Despite the renewed focus on Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent CEO Michel Combes has indicated that Bell Labs will not be alone when it comes to fostering innovation at the company. Alcatel-Lucent is also pursuing new product ventures in incubation hubs such as California and Israel. The vendor has said IP networking and high-speed broadband access will represent 85 percent of its R&D investment in 2015.
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