“It’s our coming out party,” Steve Perlman told me on Friday, speaking under embargo about today’s announcement that his company, Artemis, has signed an agreement with Nokia Networks to work together to deploy Artemis’s pCell technology in major cellular telephone networks around the world.
pCell, first publicly demonstrated in early 2014, “is a complete rewrite of the wireless rulebook,” Perlman said at the time. (Perlman is best known for developing QuickTime at Apple, and as a co-founder of Web TV and founder of motion capture company MOVA. Artemis is a wholly owned subsidiary of Perlman’s startup incubator, Rearden Companies.)
Essentially, Artemis’ approach to wireless communications embraces interference instead of avoiding it, increasing capacity of a network by a factor of 50, the company claims, and preventing the dramatic drop in cellular data rates typically experienced by users in crowded environments. The technology is compatible with current LTE mobile devices, and the effect, Perlman has said, is 5G performance on a 4G network.
Deploying the system requires adding servers to a cellular provider’s data center to handle the heavy computation required and scattering small, dumb, antennas to connect mobile devices back to the servers. The areas covered by the antennas overlap, and device uplink transmissions are picked up by multiple antennas; the software uses those signals to calculate deliberately interfering downlink transmissions that synthesize a tiny personal cell, or pCell, for each device. Each personal cell can use the full spectrum capacity of the network at once, Perlman said.
The agreement between Nokia Networks and Artemis allows Nokia to license Artemis’ technology in order to build it into network equipment, which Nokia will then offer to its customers. An as yet unidentified “tier-one mobile operator” has completed its “technical due diligence” and will begin rolling out the technology for real-world testing early in 2016, according to an Artemis backgrounder.
This trial, Perlman believes, will roll seamlessly into local deployments and, eventually, national rollouts. “Doing a deployment in a city could take just a few months,” Perlman said, “because we don’t need to be on towers, our antennas can be on rooftops or in windows. They don’t need to be aimed, because they are just tossing around interference.” Widespread national deployment in the United States could happen in as soon as a year, he said.
Mobile device users won’t need to do anything to use pCell where it’s available; Perlman indicated that some operators have said they plan to display “5G” on the phone screen for marketing purposes. But otherwise users won’t get any sign that they are on the new system except, he said, dramatically higher data transfer rates, more akin to a home broadband connection than typical cellular network speeds.
Said Nokia Networks CTO Hossein Moiin in a press release: “We are keen to see the potential for pCell in enhancing 4G LTE downlink and uplink capacity given the rapidly growing network demands such as concurrent HD video streaming.”
The Nokia deal means more for Artemis than a typical licensing agreement. pCell took Perlman and his tiny team—the company only has 12 employees—more than ten years to develop, and, when first announced publicly, faced a huge amount of resistance. “I’ve had industry experts tell me the technology envisioned would violate the laws of thermodynamics. I’ve had engineering professors laugh at me. I’ve had hecklers during presentations I’ve made at universities,” Perlman said.
“After a very long journey, this deal is an endorsement,” he says, “a confirmation that this isn’t another cold fusion, that this isn’t just a lab experiment, but rather this is a commercially deployable system.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.