More than 20 years ago at Apple, Steve Perlman helped to create QuickTime, the video software that’s still a foundational technology in every new Mac, iPhone and iPad. He also worked at wireless-device pioneer General Magic and started a bunch of innovative consumer-electronics companies: Web TV, Moxi and OnLive, among others. Perlman has an up-and-down history when it comes to turning his ideas into businesses — for instance, game-streaming startup OnLive was forced to lay off all its employees in 2012 and sell its assets — but has an impeccable record when it comes to identifying emerging trends, developing technologies related to them and doing interesting things before almost anybody else.
Now Perlman is announcing his new company, Artemis Networks, and its technology for speeding up wireless data, pCell. He says it’s the biggest thing he’s ever done. Actually, he says it’s one of the biggest things that anyone’s ever done in wireless, period. And if it lives up to his promises, that wouldn’t be hype.
The technology is designed to overcome a basic problem with existing methods of cellular connections, which make all the wireless-device users in an area compete for bandwidth from one big tower — which can result in everybody getting crummy service, especially in crowded urban areas. (That’s the case in midtown Manhattan around TIME’s headquarters, where both my Verizon iPhone and AT&T iPad are often unusable.) As carriers run out of additional wireless spectrum to allocate to new devices and applications, the situation could grow dire. “2014 was the first year that the data rate of mobile dropped, and it’s going to drop a lot more really fast,” Perlman says.
Enter Artemis’s all-new approach to distributing wireless bandwidth, which uses larger quantities of much smaller, cheaper antennas, which can be placed on locations such as rooftops. The technology turns the overlap in signal, which would normally be troublesome, into what the company calls personal cells (pCells): one-centimeter areas of coverage dedicated to each device on the network. “Instead of avoiding interference,” Perlman explains, “We create interference.”
The part that could make the technology transformative is that every one of these pCells is designed to deliver the full available bandwidth, no matter how many devices are in use — letting all subscribers get the sort of unimpeded service they would experience if each of them was the one and only wireless subscriber in the area. And here’s the kicker: Rather than requiring special phones, pCell is designed to work with off-the-shelf LTE phones and other gadgets of the sort that Apple, Samsung and everybody else are already selling. In fact, a phone can roam between pCell (where it’s available) and LTE (where it isn’t).
Perlman, who holds over a hundred patents, says he’s been working on this concept for years: “This started before Google.” He’s teased it before, and there have been reports of it being tested with spectrum from Clearwire, which has been absorbed by Sprint. But he told me that he and his team of a dozen people have only recently worked out all the necessary technical kinks to make it a reality. Here’s a video of him doing pretty much the same demos he recently did for me: One involves multiple 4K and 1080p video streams, and the other lets eight iPhones stream video at once.
Besides phones, tablets and TVs, Perlman says, pCell technology is ideally suited to all sorts of gizmos yet to be released, such as future smartwatches and other wearable devices, making it an ideal ingredient for the era of the Internet of Things.
When Perlman starts waxing enthusiastic about whatever he’s working on, he isn’t afraid to set expectations sky-high. He told me that pCells will inevitably lead to all wireless plans offering unlimited data, and will render Wi-Fi obsolete. (Hey, if your wireless plan offers an endless quantity of robust, super-fast, low-latency bandwidth, why bother with anything else?) First, though, it needs to be deployed — which will require Artemis to get additional funding and form partnerships. The company is still working on deals with the wireless carriers that would use its products; they could include the big existing players and/or new entrants.
Perlman says that pCell technology “can be” be ready to roll out in some fashion in the Bay Area before the end of the year, with additional availability — in congested city areas at first, where it’s most needed — in 2015. I’m going to keep my exuberance in check until it gets the support it needs to become a commercial reality and proves to work as well as he predicts, in part because we non-engineers are in no position to form our own opinions about the science involved and any potential hitches. But it would be awfully cool if it lives up to even half of the promises he’s making in his sales pitch.