It has been taken for granted that cell service faces inevitable slowdowns as more users look to grab more data from ever-more-crowded cell towers using a limited amount of wireless spectrum.
It’s why even ultra-fast LTE service starts to bog down in dense urban areas as more and more people adopt data-hungry smartphones and tablets. To avoid interference, each device essentially takes turns grabbing the information it needs, meaning that as more users try to connect, the speeds get further away from the theoretical maximum.
The only answers served up so far have been to adopt faster network standards, use so-called “small cells” to boost coverage or add spectrum.
But tech industry veteran Steve Perlman says the industry has gotten it wrong.
His 12-person startup, Artemis Networks, proposes carriers use an entirely different kind of radio technology that the company says can deliver the full potential speed of the network simultaneously to each device, regardless of how many are accessing the network. The technology creates a tiny “pCell” right around the device seeking to access the network and sends the right signals through the air (via licensed or unlicensed spectrum) to give each of the tiny cells the information it needs.
Think of a pCell as a tiny bubble of wireless coverage that follows each device, bringing it the full speed of the network but only in that little area. The signals are sent through inexpensive pWave radios and, because Artemis technology doesn’t have to avoid interference, the radios can be placed with far more freedom than cell towers or small cells. It also means that, in theory, the technology would be able to bring high-speed cellular service even in densely packed settings like stadiums — locations that have proven especially thorny for traditional cellular networks.
Artemis plans to demonstrate the technology publicly Wednesday at Columbia University. In demos, Artemis has been able to show — in only 10MHz of spectrum — two Macs simultaneously streaming 4K video while nearby mobile devices stream 1080p content, a feat that Perlman says would not be possible with even the best conventional mobile networks. The company has been testing the network in San Francisco, and Perlman says that by late this year the company could have a broader test network here up and running.
The plus is that, while the system requires a new kind of radio technology for carriers, it is designed to use existing LTE-capable phones, such as the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S4. The pCell technology can also be deployed in conjunction with traditional cellular networks, so phones could use Artemis technology where available and then fall back to cellular in other areas.
That said, while the infrastructure is potentially cheaper than traditional cellular gear, Artemis faces the task of convincing carriers to invest in a radical new technology coming from a tiny startup.
Perlman is no stranger to big ideas, but he has also struggled to get mainstream adoption for those technology breakthroughs.
After achieving fame and success selling WebTV to Microsoft, Perlman aimed to change the pay-TV industry with Moxi but found that most of the large cable and satellite providers were not eager for such disruptive technology. Moxi was eventually sold to Paul Allen’s Digeo and the combined company’s assets eventually sold to Arris in 2009.
With OnLive, Perlman proposed using the cloud to deliver high-end video games streamed to users on a range of devices, a technology it showed off at the D8 conference in 2010.
Despite cool technology, though, Perlman’s venture struggled and abruptly laid off staff in August 2012. The business as it had been initially founded closed, though its assets did get sold to an investor who is still trying to make a go of things under the OnLive banner.
Perlman insists he has learned from the obstacles that kept him from making those past visions into market realities.
“The challenges are always when you have reliance or dependencies on other entities, particularly incumbents,” Perlman said.
That, in part, is why Artemis took its technology approach and made it work with traditional LTE devices. Perlman said he knew getting the Apples and Samsungs of the world to support it was a nonstarter.
So how will he convince the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world? Perlman said a key part there was to wait to launch until the need for the technology was clear.
“We’ll wait until they get congested and people start screaming,” Perlman said.
Artemis is so far funded by Perlman’s Rearden incubator, though Perlman has met with VCs, even briefly setting up a demo network on Sand Hill Road to show off the technology.
Richard Doherty, an analyst with Envisioneering Group, says Artemis’ pCell technology seems like the real deal.
“[The] pCell is the most significant advance in radio wave optimization since Tesla’s 1930s experiments and the birth of analog cellular in the early 1980s,” Doherty said in an email interview. “I do not use the word ‘breakthrough’ often. This one deserves it.”
As to whether and when cellular carriers bite, Doherty acknowledged that is the $64 billion question.
“If one bites, none can likely be without it,” he said. If none do, he said Artemis can use pCell in conjunction with Wi-Fi to demonstrate the promise and challenge operators. “My bet is a handful will run trials within the next year.”
Here’s a video of Perlman demonstrating the technology.
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