Will Personal Cells (pCells) Transform Connectivity?

By Lori Castle, Editor in Chief — June 02, 2014

The data connectivity “game” has been one about “interference avoidance,” Steve Perlman, CEO and Found of Artemis Networks, told the audience at the inaugural Code Conference last week. However, his company’s new technology—personal cells (pCells)—exploit the interference for uninterrupted connectivity.

“This is an immensely disruptive wireless technology,” he said. “We will be using radio waves like they have never been used in the 100 years since the invention of wireless.” The signals will be compatible with today’s devices, with no modification and promise “100% reliability.”

He demoed the capabilities on a wall of 20 unmodified, out-of-the-box iPad Airs and streamed (without a hiccup) HD video in 5 MHz of downlink spectrum, using pCell technology.

Three months ago, Artemis unveiled pCell technology by streaming video to 8 LTE iPhones, each with its own pCell in 5 MHz of spectrum and stated that pCell could scale to any number of simultaneous LTE devices in the same spectrum so there is never congestion, even in very high-density user scenarios like stadiums, airports, schools or major cities.

In developed markets the solution addresses the squeeze on spectrum and demand on bandwidth, whereas in emerging markets, where service may only rely on broadband, the potential is untold.

A Lesson In Physics
How can this be done—it defies physics, according to Perlman. Typically in order to perform, one thing transmitting cannot interfere with the other. This is the modern version of cellular, he explained. With existing cellular networks, each tower transmits a radio signal, forming a large cell that carefully avoids interfering with other cells. Mobile devices all share the cell’s capacity.

Users essentially “take turns” using a signal; that worked fine with calls because of the low bandwidths—not so much for data. Video streaming accounts for about half the data usage currently and is expected to continue on this growth pace. However, Perlman says that adding more spectrum to increase capacity is not an option—that results in very high frequencies that no longer penetrate walls, eliminating mobility.

PCell technology exploits interference. pWave radios transmit signals that deliberately interfere with each other, combining to synthesize tiny pCells, each just one cm in size. So, theoretically, every mobile device with its own pCell gets full spectrum capacity.

What Does that Mean?
The signals are being generated entirely in software -“software defined radio”- this reduces capex and opex for systems; and is flexible and scalable indefinitely if all goes as Perlman claims.

He calls the technology utterly transformative. “The idea of having a completely reliable canopy of connectivity in the entire world—that is something we have been wanting since the early days of computing,” said Perlman.

Carrier Cooperation?
Walt Mossberg, Co-CEO, Revere Digital; Co-Executive Editor, Re/code; and Co-Executive Producer, The Code Conference, asked Perlman to clarify how the technology affects (or depends on) the carriers.

Perlman noted that pCells do not require a signal from cell tower, but “radiohead”—which is the pWave—that can be placed anywhere inside or out, many or few. “We get the benefit of something called maximum ratio combining, so all the different locations add together to extend the range,” he said.

Plus, the technology can also be run in licensed and unlicensed spectrum. “We have the curiosity in the U.S. that 900 MHz is an unlicensed band, but not so in Europe and Asia. The phones you buy here do support this band in the case of travel,” according Perlman. “It’s too noisy normally for cell phone use, so no one would think to run LTE in 900, but we can. Even with a 1 watt limit of 900 MHz we can cover a city. So technically, you don’t the need carriers technically, but we are talking to them.”

Which carriers are in discussion, remains confidential, for the most part, however FCC filings show that certain carriers are granting Atremis experimental licensing, in their “precious spectrum” which is “unprecedented” said Perlman.

If some carriers are not talking to him, many users must be. There was $1.2 trillion in 2013 carrier revenue, and since Artemis announced the technology (back in February), companies representing $600B of that revenue have gotten in touch with them, according to Perlman.

Don’t Be a BlackBerry
“For the carriers that are not doing this, it’s going to be a BlackBerry situation,” Perlman said. This was as much a warning as it was confidence in his technology, that is supposed to result in increased throughput (10x life with just one pWave device at current tower locations), lower latency than a cable modem connection and higher speed—all for less money.

Speaking of which, the cost to the carriers would likely be in licensing fees and users would likely pay less than they do now. Perlman said that Artemis is working as fast as it can to grow but the company is overwhelmed with interest, including some requests coming out of emerging markets that he says are “mindblowing.”

Still, expansion seems near, as Perlman told the audience to look for some company news soon. 

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