Steve Perlman, the iconic Silicon Valley inventor, is ready to give you a personal cell phone signal that follows you from place to place, a signal thats about 1,000 times faster than what you have today because you shouldn’t have to share it with anyone else.
Perlman is best known for selling his web TV company to Microsoft for half a billion dollars started work on this new-age cellular technology a decade ago, and on Wednesday morning, hell give the first public demonstration at Columbia University in New York, his alma mater. Previously known as DIDO, the technology is now called pCell short for personal cell and judging from the demo Perlman gave us at his lab in San Francisco last week, it works as advertised, streaming video and other data to phones with a speed and a smoothness youre unlikely to achieve over current cell networks.
Its a complete rewrite of the wireless rulebook, says Perlman, who also helped Apple create QuickTime, the technology that brought video to the Macintosh. Some believe the technology could very well remake the wireless industry, but as with any moon shot, there are obstacles aplenty.
The project would involve installing entirely new wireless antennas atop buildings and towers across the country, as well as slipping new cards into our phones. Perlman says hes already in discussions with some of the worlds largest wireless carriers and handset designers about the technology, but if history is a guide, the Verizons and the AT&Ts who are still upgrading their networks to the relatively new LTE wireless technology will be slow to make the move, if they make it at all.
In business, there is money in scarcity, says Richard Doherty, director of a technology consulting firm called Envisioneering, who has closely followed Perlmans project.
With todays networks, each antenna perched atop a building or tower creates a massive cell of wireless signal. This personal cell provides just as much network bandwidth as todays cells, Perlman says, but you needn’t share the bandwidth with anyone else. Unlike todays antennas, Perlmans radios can work in concert to focus signals on individual phones.
With current wireless networks, each antenna operates mostly alongside the others, as opposed to working in tandem with them. You can locate the radio heads wherever you want them, rather than where its convenient to put them, Perlman says, and they all transmit in such a way that theres huge overlap&creating an extremely high-performance signal
Pieter van Rooyen an inventor and former professor who has closely followed the progress of the project compares this phenomenon to that old game where you drop two pebbles in a pond, each creates circular waves that spread out across the water, and, in some places, the waves combine to create another, stronger wave. What Perlman and his colleagues have done, van Rooyen explains, is create a system where waves combine like this at the very point where your cell phone is located. Around the mobile phone, the waves add to each other, he says, and everywhere else, the waves cancel each other out.
The system can target your phone in this way because the device is constantly sending out its own wireless signals. Perlman and his team even streamed ultra-high-definition 4K video to massive flat screens, showing that the bandwidth provided by the technology can take us beyond what we can currently do on our phones. But perhaps more importantly, Perlman aims to ensure that todays phones simply work as you expect them to that calls aren’t dropped and texts aren’t delayed, that you never hit a dead zone, that you can still use the network when an emergency hits and thousands of people jump on at once. Perlman says the technology has an advantage because it works works with existing cell phones, and he tells us that every major carrier and platform maker is circling us, all to see if they can have it. But phones will require new SIM cards, the tiny removable circuit cards that control a phones connection to a network. It can both empower and upset many established industries, Doherty says, This is a story well all be watching for weeks and months to come.
Photo credit: Wired