Cellular antennas often wear disguises. Chances are, your smartphone has at some point connected to an antenna that looks a lot like a pine tree, a palm tree, or even a cactus. But in typical fashion, serial Silicon Valley inventor Steve Perlman aims to push this idea much further. He and his company, Artemis Networks, just unveiled a cellular antenna disguised as a cable. Yes, it’s wireless technology that looks like a wire.
But Perlman, best known for developing Apple’s Quicktime video and Microsoft’s WebTV, didn’t build this new antenna just for the irony. It’s part of his ongoing effort to expand the internet bandwidth available to mobile phones so that everyone can stream more data and more video with fewer hiccups. His new antenna is the latest incarnation of pCell, the Artemis technology that significantly improves bandwidth by providing a kind of personal signal you needn’t share with anyone else. Now, the pCell is only 15 millimeters wide and can fit in the palm of your hand. When slipped into a cable, Perlman says, telcos can not only install it discreetly but without a permit.
Small cellular antennas are nothing new. But typically they aren’t this small, and typically they do require permits. “That’s the bugaboo,” says Joe Hoffman, vice president of strategic technology with tech research firm ABI Research and a specialist in small cells. Recently, T-Mobile lost a battle to overturn a San Francisco ordinance that requires permits for small cells. Sprint has faced similar problems in certain cities.
Perlman says that his tiny antennas, called pCell minis, get around these issues. His company is already installing them as cables rather than as antennas, which means they aren’t subject to the same restrictions. “They can be deployed in a way that no one can see them,” he says.
This very small cell tech is doubly intriguing because Perlman and Artemis say that they’re testing these antennas through Webpass. That’s the San Francisco-based internet service provider recently acquired by Access, the newly formed Alphabet company that runs Google Fiber. Webpass and Access did not respond to a request for comment, but these tests hint at ways that Access could transform Google Fiber in the years to come. Perlman’s technology could expand the internet bandwidth available not only on phones but in homes.
Google Fiber originally operated much like any other ISP: It ran cables into homes and businesses, though these cables provided unusually high-speed connections. But after Google reinvented itself as Alphabet and spun Google Fiber into its own company, execs halted the expansion of the service in order to rework company strategy. Part of this change seemed to involve Webpass, which delivers internet signals to apartment buildings using wireless technology, often a cheaper and more efficient approach than wirelines in dense urban areas.
Today, Webpass uses what’s called point-to-point technology to deliver signals to each building before running cables to individual apartments. Perlman says his technology would allow Access and others to deliver high-speed internet straight into individual homes without any wired connections.
Meanwhile, these same tiny antennas could also serve up LTE cellular signals to phones. This too could be of interest to Google, which is exploring its own cellular service, Project Fi.
This is not to say that Google will take these routes—or that taking these routes would be easy. Jim Chiddix, the former chief technology officer of Time Warner Cable who has served as an advisor to Artemis and is familiar with the new pCell antennas, says that installing internet infrastructure is never a simple undertaking. “Providing any wide-area network is a lot of work,” he says.
But the pCell mini could make the process simpler than it is today. For one thing, it’s so unobtrusive. By handling most of the signal processing in software rather than hardware, Perlman and his team have delivered an antenna that can slip into a standard cable without calling attention to itself.
What’s more, these devices can sit right beside each other within the cable. Typically, cell antennas can’t be too close because their signals would interfere with each other. “As you put them closer together, you can’t get any additional gain,” Hoffman says. But Perlman’s technology makes use of interference—indeed, thrives on it.
In the future, Perlman says, these antennas will also deliver power to phones and other devices over the airwaves—so you (almost) never have to worry about running out of battery juice. “You can imagine a phone designed without a battery,” he says. “We can do that.”
Chiddix says that in the short-term, this technology is most likely to find a home inside existing telcos, the companies the already operate the country’s biggest cellular networks. These companies could run the antennas down the street, alongside or in place of existing internet and cable TV wires. That said, the new pCell antennas are already under test inside not only Google but the Dish Network, the TV company that’s licensing wireless spectrum with an eye towards offering internet service, too. With these antennas, the possibilities extend well beyond a good disguise.