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Happy Birthday! The Ideas Factory is 90!

happy birthday

via Flickr © Will Clayton (CC BY 2.0)

Now here's a birthday worth the celebrating. Bell Labs is 90 years old and going strong. It remains full of vim and vigour and abrim with ideas and last week this world-famous nonagenarian institution was celebrated and lauded by scientists from around the world at a prestigious gathering at its New Jersey HQ.

Thus far in its illustrious history Bell Labs scientists have been credited with (among many other scientific advances) the development of radio astronomy, the wave matter of nature, the transistor, the laser, the charge-coupled device (CCD), information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language, S programming language and the C++ programming language. To date an incredible eight Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Labs. The latest to be honoured is Eric Betzig, who, just last year, was awarded the prize for his groundbreaking work on molecular and biological imaging.

And, of course and if you'll forgive the pun, Bell Labs, under its current president, Marcus Weldon, isn't resting on its laurels. It has a programme of research and experimentation reaching years into the future and covering a plethora of scientific disciplines - including, of course, telecoms.
As Marcus Weldon says "The Nobel Prizes aren't just trinkets. They were won by solving big problems in communications and enterprise networking … the point is that history connects to the present… and our work now is developing the network of 2020."

Marcus Weldon took over as president of Bell Labs in 2013 and has already made his mark by putting the focus back where it used to be - on solving today's real-world problems whilst bearing strongly in mind that, properly managed research and development into and of them can result in the sort of groundbreaking scientific discoveries that have made Bell Labs such a revered institution since 1925.

With the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), the expected exponential global growth in the number of interconnected devices and the bandwidth crisis that will be the inevitable corollary, Bell Labs is currently researching new ways simultaneously to transmit multiple channels of data and thus boost bandwidth over copper, fibre and through the ether. These days, many network technologies are either at, or uncomfortably close to, the limits of transferring data over a single channel and it is getting ever more difficult to increase speeds in such circumstances.

So, at last week's birthday party, Marcus Weldon gave some insights into his thinking on this pressing subject and outlined some of the practical search for solutions that is now underway.

Thus, in the quest to greatly enhance data transfer speeds over traditional copper wire infrastructure Bell Labs researchers have achieved speeds of 10Gbit/s gigabits via a new technology they call XG-FAST. This is the progeny of G.FAST, a new broadband standard that should become commercially available later this year.

For the experimental XG-FAST, Bell Lab scientists must now move on and prove that they can provide the 10Gbit/s speeds on real-world wired networks rather than over 30 metres of copper cable in a lab.

Meanwhile, the Bell Labs scientists are also working on the transmission of data over fibre at at 1Tb/s over multiple pathways in optical networks.
As TelecomTV reported yesterday, they are also deeply involved in ensuring that upcoming 5G wireless networks will permit traffic from humans and IoT devices to "coexist harmoniously on the network," as Marcus Weldon puts it.

To ensure this will be the case his teams of researchers are also working on "universal filtered orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) a technology which, Mr. WEldon is sure, will be considerably more efficient than so-called '4G" and permit mobile networks to manage many more devices, from smartphones and tablets tall the way through to IoT in its many and varied forms. Basically, OFDM permits one single channel to carry data over parallel streams that can overlap one another without causing interference.

Work is also underway on miniaturised "small cell" 5G base stations that can themselves, via solar conduction or "energy harvesting", generate their own power. The small cell base stations will be wirelessly connected main network via Multiple-Input Multiple-Output (MIMO) where 64 antennas are combined to carry 16 beams to connect a matrix of the pint-sized base stations.

At last week's event, invitees, saw a demonstration of prototype in operation while Marcus Weldon commented, "We are ironing out the kinks and proof-of-concept shows it should be possible," he said.

However, Mr. Weldon is a realist, and like a certain Mr. Scott before him, knows well that "ye cannae change the laws o' physics." or, as he puts it in his English accent  (rather than ersatz Aberdonian) "As usual in physics, you don't get something for nothing."

Yes, there's that perennial problem with the dilithium crystals, isn't there? But then I guess none of us would be surprised to discover that there's a team working on that at Bell Labs right now.

On a more serious note it  is sincerely to be hoped that the the 90 year old institution will be allowed to continue to its centenary and long beyond even if ownership of Bell Labs passes from Alcatel Lucent to Nokia in the months to come. Hopes are high.

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