Alcatel-Lucent was set to launch an initiative Monday to help kick-start the LTE (Long-Term Evolution) market, though its far-reaching ambition suggests rival Cisco Systems may be the ultimate target.
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Alcatel-Lucent will join with Samsung Electronics and other vendors to form the "ng Connect" program. It's designed to foster new user experiences made possible by high-bandwidth networks, said Derek Kuhn, vice president of emerging technology and media at Alcatel-Lucent.
"This is all about what next-generation connectivity can bring to the user," Kuhn said.
Vendors involved in the program will cooperate on a case-by-case basis to jointly develop new applications that can work on certain types of networks, or to make new applications work in labs as demonstrations for service providers. Through ng Connect, vendors will be able to identify areas where they can collaborate, and those efforts should help in getting applications to market sooner, Kuhn said.
An initial focus of the program will be LTE, the next generation of network technology expected to be embraced by most mobile operators. Fittingly, Alcatel-Lucent plans to unveil its own end-to-end LTE infrastructure offering at the conference. Trial deployments of LTE should come later this year, though broad rollouts aren't expected until 2010 or 2011.
But the initiative's scope goes far beyond LTE to include subsequent generations of mobile networks as well as GPON (gigabit-capable passive optical network) and wired technologies. According to Alcatel-Lucent, the vision spans consumer media and entertainment, enterprise collaboration and health care, automotive connectivity, digital signage and cloud computing.
The combination of mobile and fixed networks is key to some ideas that ng Connect may push forward. For example, a system that continuously monitors a patient's vital signs could provide the best possible data to doctors while the patient stays at home, Kuhn said. Such a system would span multiple types of infrastructure, including personal-area and wide-area networks, he said. As another example, a combination of social networking and entertainment could span wired and wireless broadband connections at home and on the road, letting consumers share their playlists, music and video from anywhere, he said.
Cisco has laid out similarly broad visions in positioning itself as the vendor that can bring together home, business and carrier networks to power rich new experiences. Kuhn said Alcatel-Lucent has the broadest portfolio of any networking company, spanning wired networks and mobility. Cisco does not have a cellular network portfolio like Alcatel-Lucent's, though it has recently entered the market for WiMax, a LTE rival. Alcatel-Lucent and other telecommunications vendors have found themselves up against Cisco in recent years as the Internet Protocol giant's scope has expanded. At the same time, consolidation among carriers leaves competitors scrambling for fewer customers.
But Kuhn emphasized partnerships in making future visions into realities.
"We can't boil the ocean, but we can focus on certain areas," Kuhn said. "We acknowledge that the best way to achieve some of the goals we've laid out is to work and collaborate with partners."
Part of the power behind ng Connect will come from Alcatel test networks that are used by carriers worldwide to try out new service offerings, Kuhn said. Initially, the company's labs in Dallas, Ottawa, and Murray Hill, New Jersey, will be used. But the company expects other vendors to put their labs behind the effort as well.
In addition to Samsung, ng Connect members identified in advance of Monday's debut included mobile gaming vendor Connect2Media, digital sign company Signexx, embedded operating system vendor QNX Software Systems, educational content provider Words & Numbers, and Chumby Industries, maker of an Internet-connected, stuffed alarm clock. More members will be announced at the show, Kuhn said.
"I think it's a good thing," said ABI Research analyst Nadine Manjaro. "I think it will be quite helpful to the operator." Carriers have their work cut out for them just testing and deploying LTE infrastructure, she said. The important thing is that Alcatel-Lucent has set the groundwork for it, Manjaro said. Whether the initiative succeeds will depend on how much effort the members put into it, she said.
The key to making such an initiative work would be cooperation with other network infrastructure vendors, with an eye to solving the complicated problem of interoperability, said analyst Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting.
"On day one, no matter how much you want things to have interoperability, things are not interoperable," Paolini said.
It may be fitting that a network vendor is leading the charge. Carriers and device makers traditionally have been the main players involved in shaping the mobile user experience, but with the heavy demands that new applications put on networks, the infrastructure vendors now need to be more involved, Paolini said. For example, now that some handsets have PC-like browsers, mobile users expect to be able to use anything available on the Web. And video creates its own challenges, with the demand for image quality as well as low latency, she said.
"You're going to see more of an involvement as the operators need to manage traffic to ensure the optimal use of their network resources," Paolini said.