Marconi Netravali

Former Bell Labs president Arun Netravali. The Indian American digital video pioneer has been named the recipient of the 2017 Marconi Prize. (Twitter/Bell Labs photo)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Dr. Arun Netravali, former president of Bell Labs (now Nokia Bell Labs), has been named the winner of the 2017 Marconi Prize, the Marconi Society announced June 15. The prize is awarded by the Marconi Foundation and includes a $100,000 honorarium and a work of sculpture.

The Marconi Society, dedicated to furthering scientific achievements in communications and related technologies, cited the Indian American leader’s pioneering work on video compression standards that served as the key base technology for MPEG 1, 2 and 4 and enabled a wide range of video services including digital TV, HDTV, and streaming video, ushering in a digital video revolution. The technology is used in most TV sets and all mobile phones today.

The awards ceremony will take place in Summit, New Jersey, Oct. 3, preceded by a symposium at Nokia Bell Labs in Murray Hill, on digital video and its societal impact. The Marconi Society’s 2017 Paul Baran Young Scholar Awards and Lifetime Achievement Award will also be presented that evening.

“Few things have had a greater impact on communications in recent years than the digital video revolution led by Arun,” said Dr. Vint Cerf, chairman of the Marconi Society and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. “Everywhere you look, video is transforming the way we communicate on mobile devices and how we consume entertainment and news. Movies, YouTube, live streaming–it is literally transforming how people interact. The next generation of video based on this technology, including virtual reality, promises to revolutionize video consumption, delivery and business models once again.”

Netravali’s decades-long career at Bell Labs included launching research in video coding and compression in the early 1980s, and HDTV and video networking research in the early 1990s. He helped convince the organization to undertake big system initiatives like HDTV and Softswitch, and his research team proved the viability of HDTV, earning the company a trial with TV manufacturer Zenith. That resulted in the first commercially viable HDTV system. HDTV was a hit with consumers—and a profitable enterprise for AT&T.

During his career at Bell Labs Netravali took pride in helping promote a highly collaborative approach to research, The Marconi Society noted.

“Bell Labs cultivated the brightest minds across many different science and engineering disciplines; it is this diversity that really enables large-scale system development,” he said. Netravali created a single, interdisciplinary team to develop HDTV and MPEG – a new type of organization where researchers and developers sat side-by-side to deliver new technologies quickly to the market. New research ideas in digital video – based on fundamental research advances – quickly found their way into deployed products.

As president, Netravali applied the same approach to other research areas at the Labs, including packet networks, fiber optics and all scalable IP cellular networks. He led Bell Labs (Lucent) at a time when it had 22,000 employees and a budget of $3.5 billion, launched 35 ventures, turned out an average of four patents per day, and developed leading edge products in wireless, optical and data communications at record speeds.

Netravalli came to the U.S. in 1967 and earned his Ph.D. from Rice University. He was the first to invent an iterative algorithm to estimate motion of objects on a TV screen. The cleverness of the algorithm is its real-time implementation. He now holds 100 patents in the areas of computer networks, human interfaces to machines, picture processing and digital television.

After retiring from Bell Labs, the Indian American researcher became a founder and managing partner of OmniCapital, a private equity firm based in Massachusetts and New Jersey. He is a frequent keynote speaker at major industry forums. His many awards include the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the IEEE Frederik Philips Award, the IEEE Jack S. Kilby Signal Processing Medal, the NEC C&C Prize, and the Padma Bhushan Award from the President of India. He also received an Emmy for the HDTV Grand Alliance in 1994, and in 2001 he received the National Medal of Technology from President Bush.

The Marconi Society, established in 1975 by Gioia Marconi Braga, each year recognizes one or more scientists who – like her father, radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi – pursue advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity.

Past winners have included a host of Internet pioneers including Dr. Robert Kahn, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Dr. Robert Metcalfe, as well as individuals such as Indian American professor emeritus at Stanford University Arogyaswami Joseph “Paul” Paulraj (see India-West article here), who have made giant contributions to search, wireless technology, positional and navigational technology, information theory, optical communications, networking and encryption.

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