Tim Greenhalgh on the Pounds 30 million telecoms research link in Silicon Fen
Andy Hopper is wearing a smile that communicates more than a simple sense of satisfaction with the way his academic life in Cambridge is leading.
Hopper, professor of communications engineering in the university's department of engineering, has this month sealed a deal with American telecommunications giant AT&T that ensures the future of his research laboratory, formerly funded by Olivetti and Oracle. The US corporation, which boasts annual revenues of more than Pounds 33 billion (US$53 billion) from more than 200 countries around the world, has bought the limited company that owns the lab and is pumping a minimum Pounds 30 million over the next six years into the renamed AT&T Research Laboratory based in Trumpington Street.
Professor Hopper, normally voluble over his lab's projects but reserved over business matters, cannot conceal his delight at the new relationship.
"I'm ecstatic about it. The deal is as good as it gets. It is ideal for both company and university. We're in AT&T's direct area of interest. We have always been a communications lab and there is a tremendous synergy and meeting of minds between research in Cambridge and AT&T Labs in the US. The research work will continue free of 'corporate fog' that can envelop such deals." AT&T will benefit from a potential avenue "to the end-point", selling devices to the consumer. "The corporation are now free to play in these spaces. And we will get detailed knowledge of telecommunications backbones - crucial information for our development work." Professor Hopper says.
A number of studentships and internships with AT&T Labs in the US also will be available this summer. In the longer term there may be areas of R&D interest to be developed between the Cambridge lab and BT, which this week won European Union approval for a $10 billion global joint venture with AT&T.
"Over the past five years we have been responsible for more than Pounds 100 million of inward investment into research at the lab, the university as well as three successful spin-out companies and with AT&T's backing we expect this figure to accelerate." Professor Hopper will be managing director of the research lab he founded 13 years ago to exploit commercial possibilities of research in the emerging IT sector. The lab now focuses on communications, networking, mobility and multimedia.
The lab gets financial security and as part of the investment will fulfil its commitment of Pounds 1.2 million to help set up the new laboratory of communications engineering at the university's department of engineering.
AT&T has promised continuing support and funding to the university lab.
AT&T, a hard-nosed seller of value-added telecommunications services to the multinational business community, has recently signalled a strong commitment to developing Internet Protocol services, particularly to the home user. Much touted consumer devices that complete the link, for example, internet-enabled washing machines, refrigerators, cars and interactive TVs, will be part of the informing brief at the Cambridge lab.
The 50 full-time research staff will not have to follow a strict corporate research line. AT&T is keen to avoid stifling the creative thinking that has produced innovative and marketable products.
Professor Hopper answers to David Nagel, AT&T Labs president and will also collaborate with Sandy Fraser, a former Cambridge University assistant director of research, and now AT&T's chief scientist.
Nagel heads the company's IP technology development organisation and is also a member of President Clinton's advisory committee on high performance computing, communication and the next generation internet.
Nagel says: "Nowadays, no single company or lab can do it all. So we focus on those areas we do best and help AT&T obtain the rest from outside." His US based AT&T Labs has new area of focus: the internet, access and IP. The labs are designing the most advanced global IP network and services, broadband access into the home with systems that understand and respond to speech.
David Newland, head of the engineering department and a deputy vice-chancellor of the university says: "This funding and association with AT&T Laboratories Cambridge and AT&T Labs in the US, will be a major benefit to the laboratory of communications engineering and present many opportunities for our students."