Artemis is building a 4G network in SF to prove its pCell tech works

For the last year WebTV creator Steve Perlman has been trying to convince a skeptical wireless industry that his most recent startup Artemis Networks has developed an LTE technology that solves the mobile data capacity crunch, and now he aims to prove it. Artemis is building a network using its pCell LTE technology that will cover most of San Francisco using Dish Network’s spectrum.

Steve Perlman
Steve Perlman

[company]Dish[/company] is leasing the PCS spectrum it acquired at auction last year to Artemis so it can install its transmitters on San Francisco rooftops by wireless ISP Webpass. Once it’s complete, which according to Perlman could be as soon as this fall, it will sell unlimited 4G data and voice-over-LTE plans to consumers via SIM cards that they can plug into any iPhone 6 and 6 Plus as well as select Android handsets.

Artemis’s ultimate goal, though, isn’t to become a full-fledged mobile carrier competing with the likes of [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company], Perlman told me in an interview. Instead, Perlman is building this network as a kind of grand experiment to prove to the world that his pCell technology really works. “I’ll be honest,” he said. “We have a credibility problem.”

It sounds plain crazy

pCell flies in the face of a decade of cellular networking wisdom, which states that mobile data networking technologies improve only incrementally. The progression from 2G to 3G to 4G has been about squeezing more bits per second into a hertz of spectrum, but even crossing the single bit-per-hertz threshold was a hard-fought gain. Now Artemis claims it can improve that spectral efficiency by a factor of 35 by replacing big tower-mounted macrocells with a dense layer of pCells distributed throughout a city.

Artemis pCell

While devices normally have to share the available capacity of the network, Artemis claims its technology will deliver the theoretical maximum speed to every device it connects to, no matter how many smartphones or tablets are competing for attention. Artemis has demonstrated this by placing dozens of iPhones side by side all streaming different videos over the same spectrum, something that would be nearly impossible on standard LTE networks.

pCell accomplishes this by turning the topology of cellular networks inside out. Typically, cells are deployed in a manner that avoids interference. A transmitter sits in the center of a cell and neighboring cells are spaced far enough apart that their signals don’t interfere with one another. We, the users, move throughout these generally interference-free zones and expect to always find a clear signal.

Artemis, however, isn’t creating a grid of non-interfering cells. It’s throwing its signals straight at one another, creating a network where the vast majority of physical space contains a miasma of cross-interfering airwaves. But according to Perlman, there is order in that chaos. Artemis is really shaping the radio airwaves to create tiny oases of pristine signal reception — the pCells themselves — which just happen to be centered on wherever our devices are in the network.

It’s a hard concept to wrap your mind around, but it helps if you think of the network like a pond and each transmitter like a pebble. A pebble dropped into the pond creates ripples, or waves, that radiate outward, much like a cell tower transmits today. If you throw a bunch of pebbles into the pond, the crossing ripples create new, more complex patterns. If you were to drop thousands of pebbles at precise intervals and at specific places into that pond, you could shape those patterns into very intricate shapes. That’s what Perlman claims his pCells can do: paint the Mona Lisa in the airwaves with crisscrossing transmissions. Instead of the perfect smile, though, pCells are really crafting three-dimensional cells that can follow any device through the network.

pCell versus a regular cellular topology
pCell versus a regular cellular topology

If that sounds far-fetched to you, then trust me — you’re not alone. I’ve talked to several mobile networking veterans who — while acknowledging that Perlman’s claims are theoretically possible — are very skeptical that Artemis can pull off such a feat with today’s technology. The limited technical explanations Artemis has so far provided just haven’t been good enough to convince them otherwise. As one CTO of a major global mobile carrier put it, “Artemis needs to show its math.”

In the pudding

Perlman said he’s taken those criticisms to heart, and Artemis is now taking a series of steps to quell that skepticism. Artemis is releasing a detailed technical white paper this week that Perlman said will answer many of the remaining questions about pCell technology, but most importantly, Artemis will show by doing, Perlman said.

The San Francisco network will let anyone willing to slot an Artemis SIM card into their phone test the technology for themselves, Perlman said. Furthermore, Artemis is performing a more intimate pCell trial in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium with VentureNext to test out the technology in heavily trafficked indoor areas. Finally, it’s releasing its first commercial product, called the Artemis I Hub, to carriers to test pCells in their own networks.

Perlman said he believes all of these efforts will provide both the science and the empirical data to convince pCell’s doubters of the technology’s merits.

Photo from Shutterstock/Gang Liu

As for the San Francisco network, Artemis still has to jump through some hoops to bring it online. Perlman said he wants to offer a full-fledged mobile service that SF residents can use to replace their regular carriers. That means Artemis will have to build a network comprised of thousands of pWaves (its pCell transmitters) on Webpass’s 600 rooftops scattered throughout the city.

Artemis also has to build the core infrastructure to support a VoLTE service so its customers can make phone calls and send text messages. And it needs to strike a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) deal with a nationwide mobile carrier so its customers can roam outside of the city limits. Finally, Artemis needs to get Federal Communications Commission approval for the project.

If all goes according to plan, Artemis could start selling SIM cards this fall, though delays might push it to the end of the year or into next year, Perlman said. I am looking forward to trying out this network for myself.