A new San Francisco-based start-up, Artemis Networks, announced today that it plans to commercialize its “pCell” technology, a novel wireless transmission scheme that could eliminate network congestion and provide faster, more reliable data connections. And the best part? It could work on your existing 4G LTE phone.
If it proves capable of scaling, pCell could radically change the way wireless networks operate, essentially replacing today’s congested cellular systems with an entirely new architecture that combines signals from multiple distributed antennas to create a tiny pocket of reception around every wireless device. Each pocket could use the full bandwidth of spectrum available to the network, making the capacity of the system “effectively unlimited,” says Steve Perlman, Artemis’s CEO.
First introduced in 2011 under the name DIDO (for distributed input, distributed output), pCell seems almost too fantastic to believe. And no doubt Artemis will have plenty of critics to pacify and kinks to smooth out before operators like Verizon or AT&T pay serious attention. But there are at least a couple reasons why the idea might have some real legs.
First, it’s an elegant solution to a persistent global problem. Wireless traffic is more than doubling each year and cellular operators are struggling to keep up with that growth. “Demand for spectrum has outpaced our ability to innovate,” says Perlman, whose past entrepreneurial ventures include the cloud-based gaming service OnLive and WebTV (now MSN TV), which he sold to Microsoft in 1997.
The reason isn’t for a lack of ideas. The wireless industry is pursuing plenty of them, including small cells, millimeter-wave spectrum, fancy interference coordination, and multiple antenna schemes such as MIMO. But Perlman thinks many of these fixes are just clever kludges for an outdated system. The real bottleneck, he argues, is the fundamental design of the cellular network. “There is no solution if you stick with cells,” he says.
What’s wrong with cells? In a word: interference. Base stations and wireless devices must carefully coordinate their transmission power and spectrum use so that they don’t jam one another’s signals. This ability to divide spectrum resources among many users has been at the heart of mobile systems pretty much since they emerged in the 1980s. It’s also the reason why data rates tend to plummet when many users try to use the same cells, such as in New York City’s Times Square.
Artemis is approaching wireless transmission in a completely new way. Basically, its pCell technology could allow each wireless device to use the full bandwidth of the network regardless of how many users join and how tightly they’re packed together. It’s as if your phone were continuously the sole user of its own personal cell. Hence the name pCell.