Bell Labs president: Millimeter wave is better than you think but it's not easy

Millimeter wave technology, which has taken center stage in a recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) at the FCC, is "better than you think it's going to be," but it's not easy, according to the president of Bell Labs, which has played an active role in the research of mmWave technology.

Marcus Weldon Alcatel Lucent CTO Bell Labs president


For many years, it was assumed that physical and technical limitations in higher spectrum bands made them less desirable, but the FCC's NPRM recognizes that new technological developments and research by the likes of New York University (NYU) Wireless show there's potential for providing more capacity and higher speeds for next-generation mobile service.

According to Marcus Weldon, Bell Labs president and CTO of Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), it's "better than you would think it's going to be, but it's not easy." Where it's relatively straightforward but still not easy is outdoor-to-outdoor settings and indoor-to-indoor. Trying to make it work with outdoor hotspots-to-outdoor-handsets is a little harder because there are buses, trees, buildings and other obstacles in the way.

Millimeter wave is not like cellular in that mmWave requires line of sight or near line of sight, which means it's a little trickier to configure, with focused antennas that steer the beam. When forming beams like that, you need to know where the people are, but "it can be done. We believe you can go 100 meters" with that if you set up the right kind of antennas and receivers.

What's likely to happen is there will be low-band spectrum for going through buildings and tinted windows and high band spectrum that goes through windows and wood, and both will be used indoors and outdoors. "We think it will be a complementary approach," with low and high bands paired to provide the best connections for different environments, he said.

Weldon, who serves as both president of Bell Labs and CTO of Alcatel-Lucent, said he does not know what his role will be in the combined Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Alcatel-Lucent. Those decisions were still being made when he talked to FierceWirelessTech last week. But he is optimistic that there will be a role for him.

"I'm hopeful, frankly," that with the success that Bell Labs has seen over the last few years in particular -- and Nokia has credited Bell Labs with being a model of innovation, not just historically but also now -- that spells good news for Bell Labs. That's even more important than his particular role. "As long as Bell Labs can continue to innovate for the industry and invent this future network, that's my prime concern. If I get a role in that that's interesting, then that's fantastic," but right now, the fact that Nokia values Bell Labs so highly is an important reflection of what it's been able to accomplish the last few years, he said. Weldon became the 13th president of Bell Labs in December 2013.

Bell Labs recently authored a book called The Future X Network written by Weldon and his team. The book outlined how Bell Labs sees the next technological era unfolding and the breakthroughs needed at both the architectural and systems levels, in addition to market realignments. The book, which is designed to be a conversation starter, explained that the dawn of a new era in networking is upon us and it will be shaped by the digitization and connection of everything and everyone with the goal of optimizing human decision-making and automating everyday routines and processes.

Asked what he thinks about Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) ambitious Project Loon, now part of Alphabet, Weldon said it's a good idea for building coverage-based networks. A satellite sitting hundreds of kilometers above the earth transmits a signal that attenuates the distance, so for any amount of spectrum on that satellite, you get a massive signal attenuation.

By the time it gets to the ground, you need very sensitive receivers, which is why satellite phones typically have been so expensive. Attenuation refers to poor signal-to-noise ratio, which means you can't send very many bits in the end relative to what you could do on earth.

"It's great for coverage -- everyone will get a signal -- but it's not really great for capacity," he said. "I think it's great for connecting unconnected people, with the emphasis on connection. It is not the right architecture, in my view, for high capacity networks connecting billions or trillions of things, each streaming video."

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