Is pCell the Holy Grail of wireless networking?
Steve Perlman believes his company's pCell technology will revolutionize the wireless industry, eliminating congestion, dead zones, and unreliable connections.
Serial entrepreneur Steve Perlman claims that his new patented technology can create the wireless network of our dreams.
His invention, pCell, theoretically delivers on the long-sought dream of ubiquitous, fast Internet, with the reliability and consistency previously only achievable through a wired connection. pCell is "effectively mobile fiber," he announced in a press release for his new company, Artemis Networks.
The technology turns conventional wisdom about wireless technology on its head. pCell, which stands for "personal cell," exploits interference rather than avoiding it as in conventional wireless networks.
In cellular networks, a tower transmits a radio signal creating a cell, which has to avoid any interference with other cells. Cell tower capacity is shared among mobile devices, taking turns to avoid interfering with one another. With the growing number of devices and increased data demands, cell service can degrade, even with technologies like MIMO and beamforming, which are tricks to squeeze the most capacity out of limited spectrum.
Artemis and Perlman have a different take on those limitations.
"This is a tubes to transistors breakthrough. We are looking at the problem from a different point of view," Perlman said. "If you have 10 or 100 phones taking turns, we are simultaneously using all channels at once. We figured out how to synthesize a tiny bubble around your mobile device."
Instead of avoiding interference, pCell technology embraces it, combining radio signals transmitted from multiple pCell base stations to synthesize pCells about a centimeter in size around each mobile device. These pCells are like tiny air bubbles that direct a full amount of wireless capacity into a device, amping up its speed. As a result of the personal pCells, users aren't waiting for their turn and aren't competing for limited spectrum.
pCell is based on DIDO (Distributed-Input-Distributed-Output) technology, a cloud wireless system dependent on DIDO data centers running on industry-standard processors and Linux, according to a white paper (PDF) by Perlman and chief scientist Antonio Forenza. It's those data centers that are key: they're able to separate traffic from different devices into multiple channels, allowing them all to use the maximum amount of wireless capacity without butting heads. The traffic gets shuttled to each mobile device via pCell access points, which the company dubbed pWaves.
pCell's access points also work via line of sight and in random patterns, which can reduce costs of transmitting to the data center. Increasing capacity involves adding more pWaves, and the limit is on what the device can receive. An iPhone with dual antennae can receive up to 70 megabits per second per antennae. pCell can also run LTE and other wireless protocols at the same time. A carrier could support different classes of devices in the same spectrum, Perlman said.
In a video demonstration, Perlman shows streaming 1080p video at 10 MHz on laptops over an LTE cellular connection, 4K streams of Netflix's "House of Cards" running on 4K TVs and HD video running a half dozen stacked iPhones with 5MHz bandwidth, all getting the full spectrum bandwidth simultaneously. "It's absolutely a revolution in wireless....there is nothing close to this density, even with the phone antennae a few millimeters apart," Perlman said.
Of course, pCell only exists in tests so far. Perlman will offer the first public demonstration of the technology Wednesday at Columbia University. "It's like cold fusion. It sounds too good to be true," Perlman told CNET. "We want attendees to ask us hard questions, and for people to understand that this is for real and to figure out what to do with this powerful thing."
"It's for real," said Rick Doherty of research director of the Envisioneering Group. "It does deliver multiple streams of data better than any cellular switching technology or 5G, which isn't real yet. He has solved a puzzle of nature, reconstructing goodness out of what seems to be randomness and interference."
Perlman and team have been meeting with the major carriers, Internet service providers, and platform providers like Google and Apple and has been performing tests. The low hanging fruit for pCells are large metropolitan areas that are congested. "We have a meeting with carriers, and the CEO is flying to see us the next week," he said. The company is testing the technology with a partner in San Francisco and expects a commercial deployment by the end of the year, with broader global deployments in 2015.
This isn't his first role as a technical revolutionary. Perlman worked at pioneering companies including Atari, Apple, and General Magic before the turn of the century, and he created and sold WebTV, a system that offered Internet access via TVs, to Microsoft for about $500 million in 1997. He subsequently developed a photorealistic motion capture system used in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and OnLive, on-demand gaming platform that failed to win over paying players.
He said he has spent nearly a decade figure out how to move from broadcast networking to unicasting, with users sharing spectrum but receiving maximum throughput. "We came up with something that would work mathematically but there was no radio. Everyone said we were crazy," Perlman said. "I finally found a principal scientist, and he agreed that theoretically it could work, so we had to build a radio that never existed before. Once we got it working, we had to develop new mathematical techniques to make it practical." Part of being practical was making the pCell compatible with LTE phones.
"The big news is yet to come," Perlman teased. For developing countries without LTE, Artemis Networks' virtual radio would be a much cheaper way to offer fiber-class broadband than conventional cellular technology.
With Artemis Network's wireless technology a company with sufficient capital, scale, and ambition could create a mobile network for devices with unlicensed spectrum. "Setting aside the nerdy technical stuff, the promise of what we are doing is a world that is interconnected with reliable broadband everywhere," Perlman said.
With just 12 people, Perlman's company is looking for strategic partners to turn pCell into more than just a compelling technology demo. "It's always tricky to do that in the world of competing interests. We made it so there is no way to block it. Mobile carriers can use it, and for those who want to do nothing, someone will BlackBerry you."