With the rapid spread of high-end mobile devices and streaming services to feed them, the cellular networks built to carry data in the United States are becoming congested. Wireless spectrum is limited, and the bandwidth delivered by cell towers must be shared by many people, whose devices basically take turns grabbing some of the spectrum.
So even high-speed LTE networks are slowing down — especially in densely populated areas.
At the Code Conference today, startup Artemis Networks showed off a new technology called pCell (which stands for “personal cell”) that it claims solves this problem by creating tiny, virtual cells around each mobile device. The company claims these cells deliver fast, unshared bandwidth to each smartphone, tablet or laptop, even in packed places like stadiums.
The pCells are generated by small transmitters that look sort of like a larger version of a home wireless router and can be placed all over a building or a city. If adopted, they could even one day replace cell towers, according to Artemis founder Steve Perlman, who formerly worked at Apple and Microsoft and helped invent products like QuickTime and WebTV.
On the Code stage, Perlman and his team created a wall of iPads playing high-speed video over a cellular network with pCell technology, something that very likely would have caused endless stuttering and buffering in normal circumstances.
“It’s an interference avoidance game.”
Artemis Networks founder Steve Perlman on the status quo of internet access in areas with many devices.
The pCell system works with standard LTE phones, so no new handset technology is required. And they can coexist with the current cell phone transmission system.
In a February Re/code post, one analyst, Richard Doherty of the Envisioneering Group, was quoted as saying: “[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.”
But there’s a catch: Deploying them will require the active cooperation of the major wireless carriers, who may be suspicious of relying on a radical new technology from a small startup. And Perlman hasn’t always succeeded. His last venture, a high-speed game streaming service called OnLive, failed to catch on.
Another option: pCells work with Wi-Fi as well, so the technology could be deployed without the cooperation of cellular carriers. But the company’s main goal is to get the system adopted by the carriers as a way of solving their congestion problem.
Perlman said Artemis is trying to launch in both developed and developing countries.
“We’re overwhelmed, and we’re trying to grow as fast as we can,” he said. “We’ve literally virtualized radio.”
Additional reporting by Eric Johnson.
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