NuLink – Interview with Laurent Zwahlen

What is your professional background in a few words? My name is Laurent Zwahlen and I am 62 this year. I went to the Technical School in Le Locle, and got Federal Certificate of Competence as an...

1 October 2019

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What is your professional background in a few words?

My name is Laurent Zwahlen and I am 62 this year. I went to the Technical School in Le Locle, and got Federal Certificate of Competence as an electronic equipment assembler. I worked two years as a technician. Then, I worked at Swiss Timing as head of the R&D department before going to Migros to computerize the logistics room of the Marin hall. After that, I did an accelerated Bachelor’s degree in computer science in Bern. After an MBA, I worked for three years at SBS before the merger with UBS.
I am passionate about television and techniques applied to television and I created my first company in 2000, LiveTools Technologie SA.


In which field was your company active?

It was the first company in the world to develop digital, wireless transmission technology for television cameras. The company was based in Marin and had sixteen employees. We had received support from various entities in the canton and from UBS, which was still making Start-Capital at the time. We developed the digital transmission system for the Tour de France, which is still in use today. Of course, it has evolved with High Definition (HD). But it is still the same technical basis that is used.
In 2006, we sought funding to expand internationally, unfortunately without success. Then we received an offer to buy the company that produces the Tour de France. She wanted to keep the exclusivity on our products. From then on, they made an offer to buy back the company, which we accepted. The company is still based in Switzerland, in Morges, and involved in the Tour de France. After this entrepreneurial adventure, I created NuLink in 2006.


What are NuLink’s activities?

It offers consulting activities. Indeed, this approach seems to me to be more appropriate to remain independent and not spend time seeking funding. One thing led to another, I was mandated for major projects such as the Olympic Games (Olympic Games) and the World Cycling Championships. I was also responsible for all wireless cameras during the football World Cup in Russia (2018) and in France (2019).


When you talk about consulting, what does it mean?

In the case of a World Cup, this includes the management of the entire project: technology selection, system integration, presentation of the systems to the client (FIFA in this case), tests and demonstrations. Then the manufacturing of the systems starts (subcontracting of electronic boards for example) and the operational teams are created. Finally the technicians travel to the event site. For the World Cup in Russia, there were two technicians per city (twelve cities) and I stayed in Moscow for technical support. All this for six weeks.
During the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), I was responsible for all wireless cameras for Olympic Broadcasting Services, which is the company that manages the rights and TV production for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). I have worked for them periodically, with contracts related to specific events.


What are the latest activities of NuLink?

In addition to consulting activities, NuLink participated, with EPFL, in a major European project called 4KREPROSYS, as part of Celtic Next (from the Eureka range). The Swiss part of this project is funded by Innosuisse (about one million). We are collaborating with seven international partners who have received $2.5 million in funding. As part of this project, we developed a new HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) compressor to compress video images. In fact, we received the prize for the best multimedia project from Celtic-Next on June 19, 2019.


What is the advantage of this new way of compressing images?

Previously, television was in standard definition. Then we switched to high definition, with an increase in throughput. Now the images are in 4K quality, for which we have developed a compressor. Indeed, the image throughput increases considerably. However, the pipes that carry the program through the cable network are not much larger or more efficient. Therefore, more advanced technology is needed to compress these increasing flows so that they pass through the sections of existing pipes.
In fact, the EPLF has one of the best audio-video compression laboratories in the world. The professor of this laboratory, Marco Mattavelli, is one of the leading specialists and is also one of the heads of standardization and standardization at MPEG.


What will you do about this research?

We would like to market this product. We have already manufactured 150 of them that were used last year at the World Cup in Russia.
In addition, the product includes a wireless modem that still requires further development. To this end, we have relaunched a research programme, this time 100% Swiss, in the hope of maintaining the technology and manufacture of the product on Swiss soil.


What is your vision of 5G?

Everyone talks about 5G, which is the evolution of 4G. Media attention is focused on the public network (Swisscom, Salt, Sunrise). Once accessible, users will have to change phones in order to access more efficient throughput. In short, sending files will be faster (30 to 40 times) and network latency will be reduced to 5-10 milliseconds (the time between sending and receiving a message). For individuals, it is a trifle. On the other hand, for connected objects such as the car with automatic control, the speed of information transmission is crucial, for example in the case of emergency braking. Thus, the car braking will be able to warn all the other vehicles in a very short time to avoid accidents (40 milliseconds on the highway can represent several meters depending on the speed of the cars). In short, 5G will mainly have an impact on off-premise applications, individuals will not really be affected!
5G is a total break, it is essentially a data communication network on which it is also possible to “talk”. The whole industry will be interested in the “communication” aspect. More concretely, these are data exchanges that can be live video or the sending of data to control a robot, for example.

Which companies might be interested in this type of communication?

The list of potential customers is very extensive. Migros, for example, has a logistics centre in Marin from which it delivers goods to its stores every night. Deliveries are made by truck on pallets, boxes etc. The future is to automate, robotize all processes with automatic pallets in particular. To manage this, very fast wireless communications will be required (a bad order can turn into an accident).
Wi-Fi, today, does not allow this communication, so 5G is the ideal candidate for this type of transmission. It is therefore within this framework that we are entering the “private 5G”. It is a system that can be installed anywhere (assembly hall, football stadium, in fields). A private network will be managed by its user. The latter will have its own SIM cards (one per connected object), and will manage its network as it wishes, without Swisscom or another operator (without subscription).
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Switzerland made a mistake by selling almost all 5G frequencies to telephone operators. Some frequencies are still available, but there will be concerns when industry wants to implement private 5G networks.
NuLink has started to develop complete private 5G solutions: from base station to specialized modems for professional audio-visual applications because it is our specialization and we are already in contact with potential customers. Then we can adapt our solution to other areas because the philosophy is the same.

Why did the industry not book or obtain 5G frequencies at the auction?

OFCOM sold the frequencies, without necessarily consulting with Swiss industry. When the industry comes forward, OFCOM will send applications to operators who may not be interested in all SME projects and who will give priority to large ones. SUNRISE will probably be more open to this type of business, unlike SWISSCOM. Indeed, we have been discussing our projects with SWISSCOM for a year and a half now, without any concrete results to date.


How will you develop your new project?

We submitted an Innosuisse project at the end of July 2019. It includes OFCOM, a small department of Swisscom (dep. International Connection – Optical Fibre), EPFL, SSR, Yverdon Engineering School and NuLink. For these projects, I still work with EPFL and the Yverdon School of Engineering. We received the good news on 13 September: INNOSUISSE will finance our project with 800,000 euros. I would like to thank the Canton’s Economic Department (Jean-Luc Bochatay) and its coaches Claude Muller (Alliance) and Thomas Meier (Platinn) who helped us to build the project.

Swisscom seems ready to invest and purchase equipment on this project. In addition, there is an agreement signed with Swiss timing and NuLink to develop the first private networks, in order to carry out tests (without modems, only base stations) with 4G. We have the support of Ericsson, which is Swisscom’s 5G supplier. They will support us for the private 5G part, mainly by allowing us to use their testing laboratories.


In concrete terms, what would be the impact of your product?

At major sporting events, there are about forty trucks of equipment. During the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, we sent 120 semi-trailers by boat and 7200 specialists were on site. The objective would be to send only cameras, microphones, timing tools, scoreboards and significantly reduce the number of employees, vehicles and containers to be moved. For this purpose, we will set up a private network during these events, with an optical fibre connection in order to manage all the cameras remotely (from Madrid or Corgémont). We will try to present and apply the idea at the Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne in January 2020. In this context, we are preparing a dossier with Swisscom (game sponsor) to present the project and inform the IOC and Olympic Broadcasting services.
Today, it would already be possible to replace trucks with optical fibres connected to each camera. We would lose the mobility of equipment, but it would work. A football field with 20 cameras, 18 of which are fixed, would not be a problem. However, setting up fiber optic cabling for a single evening is expensive. In addition, the solution lacks flexibility. Each camera movement would require a modification of the wiring and therefore of the personnel. However, all these procedures would be simplified with the integration of all audio-video equipment into a private 5G wireless network.


What would be the challenges for the implementation of this technology?

Each company will face major technological and technical challenges. Swiss Timing must think about a new approach to timing because if the impulse is blurred or parasitic when a runner arrives, time will be lost. It is therefore necessary to think of a solution to secure timing, taking into account the risks of disruptions, loss of information. The challenge for audio-video is mainly focused on end-to-end latency. The person who will control the camera from Madrid, for example, will not be able to make the right adjustments if there is a significant gap between what is being filmed and what they see. End-to-end latency is a great challenge where each step must be optimized. In 4G network, 60 to 70 milliseconds are lost in the network, while with 5G the latency will be 5 milliseconds. Then we must add the 40 milliseconds of code-decoding and finally the distance between the event site and the management office (Tokyo-Madrid is about 40-50 milliseconds). The goal is never to exceed 150 milliseconds over the entire chain.

Will NuLink’s strategy change with the production of this equipment?

There are two conditions for NuLink to become an equipment manufacturer again. The first one is filled with INNOSUISSE funding.
The second will be more difficult to complete: find investors for an amount of about 1.5 million. If we can find this funding, we will tackle the international market.

What are the difficulties in financing a project in Switzerland?

In Switzerland, when a project is launched, there are financing opportunities (Start capital, business Angel). The real problem arises after the Start-Capital stage, where financing opportunities for industrialization, manufacturing and marketing are lacking. It’s never the right product, nor the right time. This phenomenon is quite representative of Switzerland. For this reason, many Swiss projects will be developed in the USA. We have great projects, great schools, but often it’s at the end that there’s a problem. I experienced it with my first entrepreneurial experience when we sold our company to a French company, simply because we could not find financing in Switzerland.