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Net neutrality, Alcatel-Lucent style

Alcatel-Lucent hasn't officially gotten caught up in this week's brouhaha over the FCC's plan to formalize net neutrality rules. However, that doesn't mean the company doesn't have a big stake in the issue.

Wim Sweldens, VP of Bell Labs' Alcatel-Lucent Ventures and in essence Alcatel-Lucent's CTO, said in an interview with Network World this week at the EmTech@MIT event in Cambridge, Mass., that Alcatel-Lucent's mission involves not just serving the traditional carriers it has supplied with equipment for years but also the new application and content providers, such as those offering social networks.

“There's tension. People use derogatory terms like 'dumb pipes' for carriers and 'over-the-top' players for Web 2.0 companies,” Sweldens says, citing ongoing debate. “Today, there's not a well-oiled value-chain between the Web 2.0 companies and the telcos, but there needs to be.”

Part of the trick, Sweldens says, is exposing the call control and other sorts of technologies that lie beneath the surface of wired and wireless networks so that application and content developers can exploit them, such as to build proximity-based services and services like network-based address books.

Carriers also need to get more visibility into their own networks so that traffic such as peer-to-peer file sharing is seen as an opportunity, not a threat, Sweldens says. “People use P2P because they find it useful,” he says. “So what can we do to improve the end user experience while also dramatically reducing load on the network?”

Carriers also need to bolster their networks to handle traffic from a society that increasingly is communicating via images and video, according to Alcatel-Lucent. CEO Ben Verwaayen told attendees at EmTech: “[The next generation doesn't] use words at all. If you find five words written on one line, that must be novel. Videos tell the story. Pictures tell the story.”

Alcatel-Lucent is attempting to address the needs of carriers, application/content providers, and ultimately end users, in a number of ways:

* It is bringing various parties together through efforts such as the 4G industry group called the ng Connect Program.

* It's making internal product developments, such as the Converged Backbone Transformation Solution, which is designed to unite optical transport and IP routing to enable carriers to run more efficient networks.

* It's pulling off strategic acquisitions, such as the recent buyout of content delivery network products company Velocix;

* And it is commercializing Bell Labs inventions and investing in startups outside of Alcatel-Lucent's walls, through Alcatel-Ventures, the New Jersey-based outfit that Sweldens built from scratch a few years back. Products emerging from the group include the Wireless Network Guardian for carriers and the Nonstop Laptop Guardian designed to help companies keep track of and manage portable computers.

Sweldens says Alcatel-Lucent Ventures' mission is to commercialize and invest in developments that fit with Alcatel-Lucent's overall strengths and that can benefit from the technical, marketing and sales resources of a company with a $10 billion-plus market cap. So far, the group has commercialized eight ventures. As for outside investment, details are scant, but Sweldens says the group generally targets later stage investments and a typical funding might run between $1 million and $10 million.

“We want to make an investment from us worth more than a dollar from other investors,” he says.

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