A New Cellular Technology

Steve Perlman and his company Artemis are experimenting with a new form of cellular transmission they are calling pCell. Perlman is an inventor who sold his company WebTV to Microsoft for half a billion dollars. Perlman also helped to create Apple QuickTime that brought video to the Macintosh.

His new invention completely changes the way that cell sites function. Today the cellular network is comprised of large cell sites that purposefully don’t overlap too much. These big cell sites then divvy up the available bandwidth to the users inside each cell. As everyone has experienced, data capacity can get overwhelmed in a busy cell site resulting in slow data speeds or an inability to even make a connection.

Perlman’s pCell technology takes a radically different approach. His technology would deploy numerous tiny transmitters using home and business IP connections. The pCell technology then combines connections from multiple tiny transmitters to create a ‘personal cell’ around each cellular phone or device. The personal cell is small, in the range of a centimeter and follows a phone’s location. On the Artemis web site is both a short video showing how this works along with an incredibly detailed whitepaper for those who want to really dig into the technology.

Perlman proposes to increase the bandwidth available to his pCells by connecting the tiny transmitters to existing landline data connections. This would offload pCell traffic from the cellular network, which would eliminate the bandwidth constraints from today’s big cell sites. Perlman has proposed that Google connect pCells to all customers that have Google Fiber in Kansas City as a way to create a network of tiny transmitters. Each Google Fiber customer would be encouraged to place a small transmitter on their roof. At the cellphone end, each pCell customer would have to swap to a new SIM card that recognizes the pCell connections.

In practice, if enough small transmitters are spread around a local area, then every pCell customer could make a connection that would use the maximum bandwidth allowed by the particular spectrum being deployed. Perlman describes this as each person getting all of the bandwidth of one cell site.

And that’s where I think Perlman gets into both market and regulatory trouble. He basically wants to introduce an alternative cellular technology, and cellular companies are unlikely to scrap the big cell networks in favor of this new technology. Unfortunately for Perlman the large cellular carriers license the spectrum they use today for 4G LTE and that gives them exclusive rights to that spectrum. I can’t imagine the cellular companies are going to allow Perlman to swap SIM cards and run an alternate network using their licensed spectrum.

Perlman likens this concept to the idea of using a cellular repeater to get a stronger data signal. There are a lot of such repeaters in place, mostly either to strengthen cellular signals in large buildings or to boost the signals in rural areas for those located near the outer edge of a cell site. But those repeaters are sanctioned by the cellular companies, and therein lies the difference from a regulatory perspective.

Perlman’s pCell technology could be a giant leap forward in cellphone technology. In fact, it looks like a great alternative to 5G. Perlman’s tiny transmitters are smaller and far less less expensive than the small cell sites that the cellular companies are now installing. The pCell technology would disperse hundreds of tiny transmitters in a neighborhood instead of the handful of expensive small cells that are envisioned by the cellular providers.

But if no cellular company is willing to try the technology then this is going to be a hard sale in the US. Customers don’t have any automatic right to intercept and reroute cellular traffic that uses licensed spectrum. And there probably isn’t enough usable public spectrum in urban areas to make this work with unlicensed spectrum. Perlman envisions this as the ‘Uberization’ of cellular and envisions that everybody with a transmitter would receive some small compensation from the cellular traffic carried by their landline connection. This truly sounds wonderful in that it would mean much faster connections and high-quality connections in crowded urban environments. But I’m highly skeptical that such a network would ever be allowed in practice unless sufficient public spectrum is available to make this work.