Bell Labs Celebrates the Past, Looks to the Future

At an event, the storied research institution lauds its Nobel Prize winners and outlines efforts to improve enterprise network speeds and capacity.

Bell Labs

Scientists and officials from the prestigious Bell Labs gathered at the facility's New Jersey headquarters April 8 to celebrate its 90 years of history and the 13 researchers who over the years have shared the Nobel Prize over the decades for their work in chemistry and physics.

Among those honored was the labs' most recent Nobel laureate, Eric Betzig, who won his prize last year for his work on molecular and biological imaging.

However, while much of the day-long event focused on Bell Labs' storied past, it also was an opportunity to talk about the work the institution is currently doing around its vision of how the network will evolve through the rest of the decade, according to Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and CTO for Alcatel-Lucent, which operates the labs.

It was a way to show that the awards over the years were won in the pursuit of business goals.

"The Nobel Prizes were not just trinkets," Weldon said in an interview with eWEEK days before the event. "They were won by solving big problems in communications and enterprise networking. … The point is that history connects to the present … and that work is developing the network of 2020."

Since taking the reins at Bell Labs in 2013, Weldon has pushed to put the institution's focus back onto its original mission of solving real-world problems while being aware of scientific discovery that can result from that work. In today's world, that means working to help create the necessary network bandwidth for the massive numbers of connected devices and the results flood of data while dealing with the increasing physical restraints within modern networks.

Such work touches on a broad range of networking technologies, from optical and copper wires to wireless networks, including 5G, and Weldon touched on some of the projects underway at Bell Labs. That includes increasing the data transfer speeds over traditional copper wire, a project that was highlighted last year when researchers announced speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second leveraging a prototype technology called XG-FAST.

XG-FAST is the successor to, a broadband standard that is expected to be commercially available this year and is being embraced by telecommunications companies to bring gigabit speeds to broadband networks over copper telephone wires. That will enable service providers to bring high-speed broadband services to businesses and homes in a more economical fashion than fiber. Improving speeds over copper doesn't mean there's no future in fiber, only that there is still a way to go to maximize what copper can do.

The challenge now is to increase distance—Bell Labs researchers can achieve the 10Gb/s speeds over 30 meters—and frequency (the wider the frequency range, the faster the broadband speed).

In the area of fiber, Bell Labs researchers working are on ways to move data at 1Tb/s over multiple pathways in optical networks, Weldon said.

Researchers also are working on ways to make upcoming 5G wireless networks faster and more efficient to better enable traffic from both people and machines on the Internet of things (IoT) to "coexist harmoniously on the network," he said. This can be done using a technology Bell Labs is working on for 5G called universal filtered orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), which Weldon said will be significantly more efficient than 4G and enable mobile networks to manage more devices, both users' smartphones and tablets as well as systems that make up the growing IoT.

Essentially, OFDM enables a single channel to carry data over parallel streams, and those streams of data can overlap without interfering with one another. While traditional WiFi networks may be about 10 percent efficient, OFDM increases that efficiency, he said.

In addition, Bell Labs is developing small cells for 5G networks that are self-powered through solar power or other means and connect to the network via multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) using dozens of antennas rather than wires. The results are more power-efficient and faster networks, according to Weldon.