FAQ: The Wireless Network That Could Replace Mobile Services Entirely


Do you like your current mobile phone service? The answer is probably obvious. Who wouldn’t upgrade their mobile speed and quality if it were as simple as switching to another wireless network? But carriers tend to use similar equipment in the same cell phone towers, especially in larger towns and cities, so differences in data are understandably slim. But what if a new technology came along that could replace those old towers entirely?

Dish Network thinks that it has, which is why it is partnering with the company Artemis Networks to work on a new cell technology that could change the game forever.

What is This Deal Between Dish and Artemis Wireless Networks?

Dish doesn’t seem like a serious contender in the mobile network field at first glance. But the satellite provider has been branching out in the last few years, investing in a number of different network technologies (remember, they were also the company to offer the cable-cutting Sling TV).

The partnership with Artemis then, is not completely unexpected. Artemis Networks is a venture that specializes in a very particular type of mobile technology called pCell. We’re aren’t talking about a few upgrades to existing services here, we are talking about a totally new way to create cellular networks that could lead to exponential gains in speed and service quality. This technology has the potential to revolutionize the way people obtain data on mobile devices, and Dish found the prospect worth a partnership.

However, as is often the case with new and still-developing technologies, the companies decided to only test the pCell network in a very small area. San Francisco, with its tech-happy atmosphere, was chosen to be the testing ground.

What Technology Does This Use?

To understand why pCell promises such vast mobile network upgrades without the same huge cell towers requires an explanation of how towers broadcast traditional cell signals. Cell towers fling out a signal in a vast circle around them (roughly, given terrain issues), but where signal circles draw close they can create interference and dead zones.

But pCell technology ignores the tower set up and instead uses a number of small antenna stations to pinpoint a phone’s location stream data directly to that phone. The technology includes the ability to shuffle data back and forth between different antenna stations as they pinpoint the phone, leading to a powerful joint effort by the network. Thinking of it like the difference between a general area-effect sprinkler compared to several people standing around aiming water hoses at one spot.

Why is This a Big Deal?

In addition to getting rid of dead zones for good, this network of mini cell stations has the ability to increase data speeds by as much as 35x times that of LTE. That’s not so much an improvement as it is a coup. The technology also reinvents the way we think about cell service, from an understanding of cell towers laid out like a grid across the map to an interweaving, multistrand, intelligent service that is far less concerned about signal range.

Of course, some uncertainties remain about how pCells will perform in a real city, which is why the companies are testing the tech in San Francisco first. If the network can survive the building, noise, weather, and people well enough, then it holds potential for reinventing cell networks in cities across the U.S.

So When Can I Get It?

If you live in San Francisco, you can expect the pCell technology to show up on about 600 different rooftops in the city area, via a business called Webpass. This will hopefully happen in 2015 – FCC approval and other regulations have a way of taking time. You’ll know the pCell antennae by their silvery, pleasantly rounded shapes – and the fact that they are small disks hidden on rooftops instead of jarring cell towers.

If you live outside urban SanFran, you may have to wait quite a bit longer for a new wireless network. However, Steven Perlman, the entrepreneur behind Artemis, is also planning on bringing the technology to other areas if possible. He has his eye on Kansas City, which has already proven to be a reliable testing ground for new technology with its early adoption of Google Fiber a few years ago.

There’s one final caveat to the plan: Since this technology is still experimental, cell phones require a new SIM card to be able to use the antennae properly. It’s an annoying step, but one that is becoming far easier than to efforts by companies like Apple to create a virtual SIM setup that allows you to reprogram your SIM without switching it out for a new one.