FACTS : Father of HDTV
Arun Netravali was a very busy man when we tried to meet him in Murray Hills, the headquarters of famed Bell Labs. He kept changing the appointment. Finally, we had to do a telephonic interview. He was definitely keen to meet us, but probably other corporate priorities came in the way. The temporary woes of Lucent; falling revenues, bad debts to networks, falling stock price, which has taken a massive 80 percent erosion in the last nine months; all of which finally led to the CEO being sacked in late October, might have kept Netravali busy at Lucent.
Arun is yet another IITian, Electrical engineer (IIT-Mumbai) known for pioneering contributions that transformed TV from analog to digital especially the development of HDTV technology at Bell Labs in the 1990s.
His work led to development of a video encoder which today is being used by more than 150 TV channels for their HDTV broadcasts, surprising isn’t it. Arun Netravalu worked for NASA, tought in MIT, worked in Bell Labs as President, Lucent Technologies as Chief scientist.
We missed an opportunity to have a spin around the famed Bell Labs, where one is said to run into a Nobel Laureate in every corridor. Handling all this talent and channelising some of their energy into commercially useful directions is obviously a challenge for its President, Arun Netravali. Bell Labs has been the mother of several inventions in fibre optics, telecommunications, computer languages, lasers and, of course, semiconductors, including the transistor. But largely, others have reaped the benefits of inventions in Bell Labs, as in the case of Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC), owned by Xerox on the West Coast.
Amidst the current boom in networking startups, mergers and acquisitions, Lucent has had a dubious distinction. It has been a nursery for many ideas, which come to fruition outside of it and when it acquires companies it is unable to retain a large percentage of key personnel from the acquired companies. Thus, Netravali and his colleagues have their work cut out.
When we asked him about optical networking and its prospects he said: “There is no question, optical is the technology of choice for long-distance communications. Today, the same fibre is carrying a larger number of bytes. Similarly, in the metro segment optical is quite established. At an enterprise level or backbone level, there is an increasing use of fibre. What has multiple possibilities is the access network. Fast optoelectronic switches and routers have to be used, since there is no optical logic or memories still. Till then, pure optical networks cannot become a reality. So, hybrid technologies are being used. What we have now are lambda routers which do not route individual packets but entire wavelengths.”
Netravali does not deny the fact that there is a slow-down in the economy, which is affecting all corporations. “But it is far less than what is made out. As far as telecom spending goes, several CLECS which came as competitors to local phone carriers have suffered revenue losses or have gone down, but ILECS involved in long distance are ordering new equipment,” he says. He agrees with Desh Deshpande of Sycamore that in the crunch time there is an acceleration in switching to new technologies, since you want a bigger bang with the same buck.
He warms up when you talk about video compression in which he has several patents and research papers. Netravali led the work in establishing MPEG standards and the HDTV initiative. “High Definition TV could not take off due to several reasons, one of them being the high cost of the tube and not enough investments in research worldwide. But I think it will make a comeback with convergence. Instead of TVs, you will have computer screens giving you HD pictures, once enough bandwidth becomes available,” he says.
Born in a small town, Ankola in Karnataka, Netravali grew up in Matunga, Mumbai. After five years in a municipal school, he joined King George High School and later Elphinstone College. After a brilliant career in IIT Bombay, where he graduated with a BTech in Electrical Engineering in 1967, Netravali went to Rice University, Houston for his PhD. After his graduate school, he joined NASA for two years before he landed up in the Mecca of research, Bell Labs, in 1972. Since then he has steadily risen to now become its president.
To Arun family still comes first. He loves tennis and travel, but “my priority is spending time with my family,” he emphasises. Arun Netravali holds over 60 patents in the areas of computer networks, human interfaces to machines, picture processing and digital television. He has been an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has also served on the editorial board of the IEEE, and is currently an editor of several journals.