BELLCORE BLOSSOMS Era of obscurity coming to end for powerhouse lab

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MORRISTOWN, N.J. -- George Washington set up headquarters here during one revolution. Today's scientists and engineers have bivouacked for another, and hope to fire some technological shots that will be heard around the world.

The encampment is part of Bellcore, a billion-dollar research powerhouse spun off from Bell Labs as part of the 1982 court decree that broke up AT&T.; Though not as well-known as its former parent, it has emerged as one of the world's premier centers of telecommunications research and a key asset as the United States competes internationally.

Until now, Bellcore's work has been most visible to Bell Atlantic Corp. and the six other regional phone companies that own it. Much of its work has gone into technical refinements of the phone network, and the behind-the-scenes chores of setting industry standards and assigning phone numbers.

But Bellcore's obscurity may be ending. As the regional companies move into multimedia and interactive uses of the telephone network, Bellcore's technology will find its way into millions of homes, schools and offices around the nation -- even though the actual products and services won't bear its name.

By the end of 1994, residents of Alexandria, Va., should be able to order movies or old episodes of their favorite sitcoms, which will be piped through phone lines and into their televisions. This "video-on-demand" service will be based on a software standard developed by Bellcore.

Later this year, Baltimore will be the test site for a system that tracks a customer's location and routes calls to his home, office or car through a single phone number -- a system using switching technology developed at Bellcore.

And in a few years, when teen-agers play video games with friends across town, the software that makes it possible is likely to have been written by Bellcore scientists.

These and other breakthrough technologies are being developed researchers such as David Miller, part of the 6,800-employee Bellcore research network that is scattered among six locations through northern New Jersey.

In a crowded lab at Bellcore's Morristown research campus, Mr. Miller ticks off some faults of the phone system: You need to know where people are to call them; you don't know the importance of a call until you're committed to the conversation; only 12 percent of business calls get through to the right person on the first try; call forwarding can't discriminate between calls you want to take and those you don't.

And with electronic mail, phone calls, voice mail and fax coming in on separate systems, people just can't keep up. "There's too much information coming in for one person to assimilate," said the 25-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate.

To ease that information overload, Mr. Miller is working on the prototype of Bellcore's Electronic Receptionist, the result of a project started in 1988. It has evolved through 35 redesigns, and Mr. Miller says it's almost ready to be offered to Bellcore clients. He hopes to see it on the market within a year.

The system, in effect, is a smart receptionist who will work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It knows where you are all the time, but won't tell the wrong people.

Here's how it works when Mr. Miller is away from his office: The phone spots important calls -- by recognizing the caller's phone number -- and can forward them according to a pre-arranged schedule. Mr. Miller hears a short recorded message and decides whether to take the call, transfer it to a colleague or route it to voice mail.

And there's more. The system will route a caller's fax to a workstation, where Mr. Miller can call it up on his computer screen. Or he can pick up his E-mail from a portable unit -- the Electronic Receptionist will "read" it to him.

In a nearby office, Rob Fish is "cruising" some of his colleagues. Nobody minds -- the word has a different meaning at Bellcore than in most places.

Mr. Fish is project director for an experimental communications system called Cruiser, which he describes as the desktop video telephony of the future.

Cruiser tries to solve a simple problem in large, far-flung organizations: When other people are out of sight, they're often out of mind. With Cruiser, Mr. Fish can "drop in" on colleagues at other Bellcore facilities, at home offices or down the hall.

On his computer screen, he clicks a mouse on Steve Rohall's phone number, and his colleague's face appears in a small window on the screen, indicating that Mr. Rohall's electronic "door" is open. At the same time, Mr. Fish's image becomes visible on Mr. Rohall's screen. Seeing that Mr. Rohall is not busy, Mr. Fish hails him and they talk.

When Cruiser was being installed, colleagues were concerned about privacy and were reassured only when told they could shut their electronic doors at any time, Mr. Fish says. But now that the system is operating, about 85 percent of his colleagues keep their doors open to video calls all the time, he says. And most people hooked up to Cruiser have stopped using the phone to speak with each other.

Focused on the near future

The Electronic Receptionist and Cruiser both use the copper phone wire that is in the ground right now, rather than depending on a fiber-optic cable network that could take decades and billions of dollars to deploy.

That fits with the mission of Bellcore's research, which is focused on the near future rather than 2025.

"Bellcore does not have a pure research organization," Warren S. Gifford, Bellcore's executive director of broad-band services research, said in a video conference between Morristown and his offices in Red Bank, N.J. Unlike the old Bell Labs, which became famous for long-range vision, Bellcore has "less freedom to look at things just for the pleasure of looking at them."

A typical Bellcore project might focus on a technology that is five years away from the market. If the payoff were 10 years out, Bellcore likely would pass, he says.

The video conference itself illustrates Bellcore's near-term orientation. It, too, was transmitted over ordinary phone lines through a technology called ImageTel, developed at Bellcore.

In recent years, Bellcore -- which has a $1.1 billion budget this year -- has taken a leading role in cooking up an alphabet soup of new technologies that will let companies squeeze more information through copper wires than scientists believed possible a decade ago.

The acronyms may boggle the mind, but the technologies could change the way we live.

ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber line) beefs up the bandwidth of existing copper wire so it can carry a video conference. ISDN (integrated services digital network) soups up the bandwidth even further and allows for interactive video. ADSI (analog display services interface) lets callers use a screen-based telephone to send voice and data.

"The work Bellcore does is not duplicated in any other research facility in the United States," says Stephen Gutkowski, senior telecommunications analyst with Moody's Investors Service.

Skeptical observers

Other telecommunications authorities are more skeptical about Bellcore's uniqueness. They point out that Bell Labs remains a formidable source of new technology, while Canada's Bell Northern, the regional Bells and other companies also are doing cutting-edge work.

"All the gee-whiz stuff you see that Bellcore is doing you can find at AT&T; Labs, the regional Bell companies and at advanced academic institutions," said Mark Plakias, managing director of Strategic Telemedia in New York.

Meanwhile, as Bellcore spreads its wings as a creator of technologies, it finds itself in an increasingly delicate relationship with its owners and clients, the seven Bell companies.

Born as regional monopolies, the Baby Bells have grown into aggressive adolescents with sharp elbows and covetous eyes for one anothers' turf. As they diversify, they often find themselves competing -- witness Southwestern Bell's venture into the Washington-area cable TV business, at a time when Bell Atlantic is becoming a provider of video entertainment there.

As the Bell companies compete, they are increasingly reluctant to develop key technologies in a joint ven

ture. In such an environment, Bellcore could quickly change from neutral ground to a battlefield of the telecommunications industry.

"Everyone's convinced the war is going to be here big-time in the next three, four years," said Peter Krasilovsky, a Bethesda-based independent telecommunications consultant.

The potential conflict has required fancy footwork from Bellcore managers. More and more, the labs are doing research under contract with a single company, which would have exclusive right to bring it to market.

That arrangement has proven comfortable for some regionals, especially Bell Atlantic. But others, notably U S West, have poured smaller amounts of money into Bellcore and have concentrated more on developing their own research labs.

Tough transitions loom

Bellcore officials admit that they look forward to a time when they can shed their consortium status and become a freestanding research company. But Mr. Plakias says it would be a difficult transition.

"Privatization of Bellcore is going to be a real hot political issue," says Mr. Plakias. "The specter of a privatized Bellcore essentially entering the intellectual property business is really going to put a lot of vendors up in arms."

He suggests that such concerns could lead to a breakup of Bellcore, splitting its standard-setting and network maintenance function from its research efforts.

But George Heilmeyer, Bellcore's president and chief executive, exudes confidence when he speaks of the future. He says the majority of Bellcore's work still centers around "strategic necessities" -- the nitty-gritty work that continually refines the nation's phone network. That research isn't going anywhere, he says.

As for the rest -- the "strategic differentiation" research that can affect competition -- Mr. Heilmeyer believes he can continue to serve many masters. "We'll be doing more in the way of customization of our work."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
43°