Bangalore: Vishwanath Poosala, the local head of Bell Labs, the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent, displays a black, modem-like box with a picture of a mango in his north Bangalore office.
Lest one mistakes it for a mere routing and encoding device, he explains that the box is a small computer, offering end-to-end content delivery solutions that would allow “mobile audio video on the go” or “Mango”.
The Mango box—the content access point—connects to networks over broadband and to mobile phones over bluetooth or wi-fi. And it could soon catapult the 84-year-old research organization into services.
Expanding innovation: Vishwanath Poosala says the idea is to create a parallel architecture that would reduce the load on the network. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Bell Labs, rechristened from AT&T Bell Laboratories to Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, has developed technologies that have changed the world, be it the transistor, laser, or digital signal processor. Just five years into India, the communication research and development behemoth is right into the services melting pot that India epitomises.
In emerging markets, users are interested in high bandwidth entertainment and personal content which they like to store and share with others but have no means to do so, says Poosala.
Existing content delivery mechanisms such as cellular data networks (GPRS/EDGE) and the services running on top of them are either slow or expensive for most users. “Moreover, their capacity may not scale for the millions of mobile users who seek high bandwidth content,” says Poosala.
Mango, he claims, will address these issues while allowing content delivery on mobile phones.
Currently testing it in its building, Bell Labs is talking to one of the largest out-of-home media companies, LiveMedia, and telecom valued added service provider Phoneytunes.com to take it to the masses.
“We are optimistic about Mango; the idea is to have a new distribution channel for digital content,” says Rajan Mehta, founder and chief executive of LiveMedia.
He thinks Mango will make the content interactive in the captive audience network of 5,000 liquid crystal display screens that his company runs, reaching around 50 million people every month. The back-end work in the Mango-led initiative will be provided by Phoneytunes.
The actual rolling out of Mango may take anywhere between six and 12 months, but Mehta looks to it as an open application programming interface (API) that would nudge developers to build applications around it. “You have the Internet now, think of it (Mango-led distribution) as the Outernet,” he adds.
The basic idea, says Poosala, is to create a parallel architecture that would reduce the load on the network. “Even the CTOs (chief technology officers) of telcos in the developed world are looking at such solutions to ease the network burden.”
While Bell Labs has been engaged in “managed services” for long, such as maintaining networks for telcos such as Reliance Communications Ltd and Bharti Airtel Ltd, with Mango it will enter value-added services as never before.
“There is lot more money today in services as compared to in equipment...equipment becomes commodity,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, who leads the telecommunications and computer networks group at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.
Only a few equipment companies in the West have survived, he adds. “Vacuum is being felt by the Chinese companies, and may be by the Indian companies in future. The companies in the West are looking at services as a way going forward.”
Services have become so central that the traditional technology research organization, for the first time ever, has begun studying it. The India centre is driving the effort across Bell Labs to see “if there’s science behind managing services”, says Poosala.
The market today is in emerging nations; services is where the money lies, says Taron Mohan, chief executive of Phoneytunes, who, though keyed up at Mango’s possibilities, is also cautious about how Bell Labs will pull it off in the public domain. “We need to see how the central box controls other (Mango) boxes,” he says.
As far as the business goes, Jhunjhunwala says the price points at which emerging markets operate are quite different from those in the West, where the markets have become saturated. “These labs may not succeed in breaking open the market easily.”
The game plan for Bell Labs appears to be in entering services via different technologies. The lab has developed a low-cost wireless-mesh architecture that extends from a town over multiple hops to bring a broadband pipe to rural areas. The lab says it has managed to extend the wi-fi range by using “directional” antenna, commoditized wi-fi radios and novel software that minimizes interference and maximizes system performance.
Calling it VillageNet, the lab is close to signing a memorandum of understanding with a Union government agency to start rolling it in rural areas, says Poosala. He is not willing to disclose the name of the agency.
It isn’t as if these innovations are restricted to the Indian market. A low-cost traffic monitoring solution, where sensors track bluetooth-based phones carried by people moving in cars and with the help of algorithms analyse the data, suggests the best route of travel up to an hour in advance.
Demonstrated at the World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Stockholm, Sweden, recently, Teleport has been tested in Bangalore and Mumbai. “We are receiving a lot of interest from European city administrations for this technology,” says Poosala.
So even as fundamental communication problems, such as how much energy it actually takes to run a network, occupy Bell Labs’ attention at one level, at another, it is emulating conglomerates like General Electric Co., which is using India as a laboratory to cost-effectively innovate products for the rest of the world—whether they be new-age aircraft engines or low-cost medical imaging devices, or even baby warmers.