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Why collaboration is central to Alcatel-Lucent's green innovation

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The telecommunications giant believes there are massive energy-efficiency improvements that can be made to networking technology, if it finds the right partners.

Alcatel-Lucent's storied Bell Labs research and development organization has produced at least 27,600 patents in its lifetime (2,100 in 2009 alone), not to mention seven Nobel prizes, nine U.S. Medals of Science, seven U.S. Medals of Technology, a Grammy AND an Academy Award.

Its work covers a broad range of disciplines, including wireless and wireline broadband access, packet and optical networking, new service delivery architectures and platforms, multimedia and mobile/fixed services and applications, and network security and network optimization.

So why would the telecommunications giant make collaboration with universities a big part of its corporate responsibility goal?

The answer lies in the unprecedented demands on energy-efficiency associated with communications networks as people all around the world gobble up every bit of bandwidth made available to them. SmartPlanet spoke with Thierry Klein, head of green research at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, for more insight into that trend -- and how R&D collaboration will help the telecommunications giant deliver on its "extreme green" agenda.

Explain what is meant by extreme green innovation.

Thierry Klein: A couple of years ago, we wanted to understand how energy-efficient networks are today and how energy-efficient they could possibly be. We undertook a study to understand this: That's your wireless, your optical networks, your wireline [networks], your fixed access [technology], your core backbone networks and so forth. … Then we mapped that to carbon consumption and emissions based on traffic trends we are seeing. We realized that there is a sudden slowdown in the energy efficiency. When you map that against the traffic growth, we are not able to keep up.

The second part of the study looked at how energy-efficient networks could fundamentally be. We realized there was a huge gap. This has defined our extreme green innovation agenda, which led us in turn to founding the GreenTouch Consortium, which is going after this rather ambitious, rather aggressive goal of improving energy in networks by a factor of 1,000.

Why are you so involved with universities in building your R&D capacity?

If you want to really achieve a factor of 1,000-fold improvement in efficiency, you cannot just focus on a single element. You really have to look at the entire network. You cannot just focus on wireless, because if you do improve wireless by that much, then other pieces of the network become the bottleneck. We need to look at all the components and that is just an enormous task for any single organization to undertake.

How do you seek and pick projects?

In general, projects really start with the interest of the researchers. I may be working on something, I meet people at a conference, I know that there are people in my area that do interesting work that is complementary to what I am working on. A lot of it is really how you start with any sort of scientific discovery. Our interests are also driven by the objectives of business units and customers. It bubbles up.

How did you pick your corporate goal for green university collaborations?

We definitely look at the coverage that we get. With every scientific and research activity, you're not saying you are successful when spend your money. You are looking to accomplish a technical result or achievement. Sometimes that can be a negative result [figuring out] that some approach doesn't work, but it is still very valuable from a technical perspective to know that. That is how we measure the progress.

Is there a specific length of time that these projects usually run?

We really need to distinguish between three types of projects.

The first type of projects would be projects where Bell Labs would work directly with the university and fund the university directly.

Then there is a second bucket of projects that are more collaborative and may be in a consortium like GreenTouch, where we may not be funding the project directly, but we are working within the framework and scope of the consortium with the university to provide some sort of in-kind contribution. Maybe just our expertise, and really work with them on the objective of the project.

The third bucket is joint projects where we may be working with a university to go after external funding, it could be US government-related or European funding and so forth.

The length of the project really depends on the category. Some of the European projects tend to be two or three years; the same with the [Department of Energy], [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] or [National Science Foundation] types of projects.

Can you give me an example of something that came through this program that became a product? What has this collaboration yielded so far?

I'll give you three examples that fit into the three buckets we have discussed.

The first one is a strategic partnership with the University of Melbourne in Australia. They set up a center called the Center for Energy-efficient Telecommunications with the state government. They are very active in GreenTouch, and we're collaborating with them on a number of projects but they are also driving projects without Bell Labs involvement in GreenTouch. So, this is one example where we have a strategic relationship with a university that drives a very broad agenda in energy efficiency that is starting to yield results within the consortium on a number of projects. GreenTouch is very broad, so there are a number of activities in fixed access, energy efficiency of cloud computing, power measurement of networking equipment as well as more fundamental studies on the limits of energy efficiency on communications that the University of Melbourne is involved with.

The second project is within GreenTouch, where we are not providing any funding, and it is what we call bit-interleaved passive optical networks. This is really trying to improve the energy efficiency of your fiber to the home systems. This is a collaboration between Bell Labs, a couple of industry partners in GreenTouch, as well as a couple of universities to really come up with a new protocol for how you send data to your fiber in the home system and do more energy-efficient processing. That was demonstrated by the GreenTouch Consortium in the March time frame.

The final example is a project called EARTH. This is a program funded by the [European Commission] that is going after a 50 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of 4G wireless networks. That is a project that includes Alcatel-Lucent, a few other industry partners, as well as five universities in Europe that have been very successful in the project to the extent that they won the Future Internet award back in May [2012].

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure