Mobile broadband speeds have come a long way in the last few years with the rollout of LTE networks across the US and several other countries. But as the number of data-hungry smartphone and tablet users continues to rise, even the fastest of connections face inevitable slowdowns while devices compete for bandwidth from a single tower. This is specially true in densely packed settings like stadiums or public transport stations.
Steve Perlman believes his company's pCell technology (short for “personal cell”) will be the definitive answer to this problem, and he’s not afraid to set expectations incredibly high. “This is as big a change to wireless as tubes-to-transistor was to electronics,” he recently told The New York Times.
With existing cellular networks, a tower transmits a radio signal, forming a large cell that provides wireless signal to all of the mobile devices within their area for handling calls or data transfers. Cell tower capacity is shared among mobile devices, taking turns to avoid interfering with one another, and as more people enter the area speeds are bound to suffer. Moreover, wireless carriers can’t simply install more antennas to make up for the increased demand because their signals can be disrupted if they are too close together.
In contrast, with pCell interference actually enhances a signal, with multiple waves combining to form even stronger waves. This means the pCell stations can be placed with far more freedom than cell towers. Then, behind the scenes, data centers connected to the antennas perform fast mathematical calculations to create a unique wireless signal for every person on the network. As a result, instead of sharing a signal, each person gets to tap into close to the full capacity of the transmitter simultaneously.
The tech is compatible with standard LTE devices and doesn’t require major changes from carriers to deploy. As proof, Perlman recently showed off pCell in his lab 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.
Pearlman’s company, Artemis Networks, has been testing the network in San Francisco and is aiming for a commercial deployment by the end of the year and into 2015. According to Pearlman, pCells will inevitably lead to all wireless plans offering unlimited data -- he might be underestimating greedy carriers, though.
Jokes aside here’s hoping the technology matches the hype.
In case you’re wondering about Pearlman’s credentials, he’s worked at companies like Atari and Apple (where he helped create QuickTime), and started a bunch of his own including Web TV, Moxi and OnLive. Some of them fared better than others but he clearly has a thing for disruptive technologies and spotting future trends.