Making wireless personal

New York TimesFebruary 23, 2014 

— In a spacious loft across the street from the Bay Bridge, Steve Perlman did something last week that would ordinarily bring a cellular network to its knees.

Around him was a collection of eight iPhones, a pair of television sets with superhigh-resolution 4K displays and an arsenal of other devices. Perlman played high-definition movies from Netflix on a half dozen or so devices at once, wirelessly transmitting all the video to them. Instead of stumbling under the strain of so much data jamming the airwaves at once, the video played on all the screens with nary a stutter.

The demonstration showed off a technology that Perlman, a serial entrepreneur and inventor who sold WebTV to Microsoft for more than $500 million in the late 1990s, contends will give mobile users far faster cellular network speeds, with fewer dropped phone calls and other annoyances, even in stadiums and other places where thousands of people use mobile phones at the same time.

“This is as big a change to wireless as tubes-to-transistor was to electronics,” Perlman said recently.

The technology, called pCell, is one of many techniques that companies are looking at to address the rising public appetite for mobile data, especially video. Watching movies, TV shows and other clips on the go is catching on in a big way, as mobile devices with bigger, sharper screens become popular and more video is available online.

But because of the increasing demand, cellular networks are regularly overloaded. That leaves wireless carriers scrambling for ways to make sure all that video does not clog their networks.

With a network of pCell antennas, someone with a mobile device will get access to the full wireless data speed in the area, regardless of how many other people are sharing that network, Perlman said. His system does this by embracing the interference caused by nearby antennas, rather than avoiding it. Behind the scenes, data centers connected to the antennas perform fast mathematical calculations to create a unique and coherent wireless signal for every person on the network (the “p” in pCell stands for personal).

“I don’t think there’s any other system out there doing anything like this,” said Pieter van Rooyen, an electrical engineer and former academic who has founded wireless startups. Van Rooyen, now the chief executive of a genomic startup, has known Perlman for 10 years and is an informal adviser to him.

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