It was almost three years ago that Steve Perlman began courting controversy by promising something of a wireless technology panacea. A relentless entrepreneur and inventor, he unveiled a prototype called DIDO in this magazine’s pages. The technology would do away with wireless network congestion by giving each smartphone and tablet its own super-fast connection instead of asking these devices to share bandwidth pumped out by a cell tower. The ins and outs of the technology were difficult to understand, and plenty of critics dismissed Perlman’s claims as being misguided and trumped up.Perlman tried his very best to prove the critics wrong today by unveiling a commercialized version of his wireless innovation, now known as pCell or personal cell technology. Perlman bills the wireless system as basically the successor to LTE, the current high-speed wireless technology. In demonstrations at his laboratory, Perlman showed off iPhones, Surface tablets, and TVs streaming massive files—the 4K UltraHD version of House of Cards from Netflix, for example—via his own wireless networking equipment. The demonstration proved not only that the high-speed wireless technology worked but also that it would work with existing devices that support LTE.
“That will shock people,” Perlman said in an interview. “It means we have hundreds of millions of devices out there that are ready to go.”The problem Perlman is trying to solve revolves around how current wireless networks are built. Companies like AT&T and Verizon will put up a cell tower that sends out a signal, which must then be shared by any people in range. The idea is to have the signals overlap at the edges of their range like a series of circles nudging up against each other. The arrangement must be done very artfully because the circles cause interference if they’re too close. As a result, there are spots in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco where you often have tons of people in the same cell all placing calls and pulling down data to their devices at the same time, and their connections slow because they’re all sharing the bandwidth in that given area. The congestion issue is expected to get worse and worse as people keeping adding wireless devices and downloading larger and larger media files.
Under Perlman’s pCell system, interference from the cells is not an issue. Instead of blasting out a dumb signal across a given area, Perlman and his team of researchers have developed a smart transmission system. Their networking equipment locates a device like a smartphone and uses complex mathematical operations to create a unique signal—hence the personal cell idea—just for that device. The upshot of this is that you can place the pCell transmitters anywhere and not worry about their signals bleeding into each other. And instead of sharing a signal, each person gets to tap into close to the full capacity of the transmitter. “We believe this is the largest increase in capacity in the history of wireless technology,” says Perlman. “It’s like the wireless equivalent of fiber-optic cables.”
Artemis Networks is the company Perlman has formed to sell this technology. It’s in the process of putting pCell transmitters on about 350 rooftops in San Francisco, and Perlman is looking to work with a telco or technology company like Google or Microsoft to get a commercial service running in the fourth quarter. “We’ll do San Francisco first and then do New York, Chicago, Dallas, and other congested cities,” says Perlman.
To work properly, a company backing the pCell technology would need to build out a large data center in addition to deploying the transmitters. It’s in the data center where servers constantly crunch away on the algorithms that form the unique wireless stream aimed at each device. As people move about, the servers must keep recalculating and processing a new stream. Perlman expects that a single data center could satisfy the needs of a city like San Francisco.
Perlman has spent about 10 years working on this technology with a handful of employees. I paid a recent visit to their San Francisco laboratory and saw the technology working firsthand. Perlman had put a few of the transmitters up near the ceiling and was able to direct a wireless beam right at a device in my hand. Despite such demonstrations, Perlman has been unable to tempt venture capitalists with the technology. “They invariably bring in experts who say it doesn’t really work,” he says. “I am showing them a demo, but they remain convinced that it’s something else.”
Perlman, who made millions selling WebTV to Microsoft, has funded all of this himself, and he declines to reveal the exact amount spent so far. He will show off the pCell technology at Columbia University on Wednesday during a midday lecture.