Google just bought a small Internet service provider called Webpass. The search giant wants a little extra help in expanding the reach of Google Fiber, its own ultra-high-speed Internet service. But there’s a little-noticed detail in this merger that could be more significant than the purchase of any single ISP. Google is now getting a firsthand look at a new wireless technology that aims to radically change the way the Internet is delivered.
That’s because Webpass is helping to test something called pCell, a wireless antenna developed by serial Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman and his latest company, Artemis Networks. Perlman’s pCell works by serving up a kind of cell-signal bubble that follows you around, an approach Perlman believes could dramatically improve cellular network speeds.
Google and Perlman both declined to discuss the Webpass acquisition, though Perlman did say in an email that Artemis is excited to continue working with Webpass as it merges with Google Fiber. One way or another, it seems, these three companies are coming together. And together, the three serve as a powerful symbol for a rapidly approaching shift in how everyone gets online.
Today, most Internet services—both in-home and wireless—come straight from telecom giants like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast. These companies have built their networks as they’ve seen fit, and they set the rules for using them. But Google and Facebook are changing this dynamic. Their massive online businesses can’t grow and evolve unless the Internet grows and evolves, and they believe the telecoms aren’t moving fast enough.
Both Google and Facebook are now building all kinds of tech for expanding the reach and improving the speed of the Internet, from new wireless antennas to drones and high-altitude balloons. And Google is operating as a straight-up Internet service provider. With Google Fiber, it provides ultra-high-speed broadband to businesses and homes. And with the newer Project Fi, it offers a service that lets you automatically move between different wireless networks, grabbing the best signal at any given moment.
A future where wireless customers gain independence from any single carrier is the path pCell is pushing down. And it could help Google push down the same path.
Building a Better Internet
A typical celluar wireless antenna covers an area with a single signal, or cell, that all phones share. With pCell, multiple antennas transmit signals that combine to create a “personal cell” that follows you around. Since this cell is yours and yours only, you get all the bandwidth. In theory, this means a much better signal—a signal up to 1,000 times faster, according to Perlman.
Nokia Networks, which helps build so many of the world’s wireless networks, very much believes in pCell and is now running tests. Separately, Artemis is testing these antennas in San Francisco, and Webpass is helping out. The Google-acquired company is installing pCells on apartment and office buildings where it already provides broadband service. These antennas plug into Webpass’ broadband so that data can travel from a phone to the antenna to the Webpass gear to the wider Internet—and back again.
Google is getting a firsthand look at new wireless tech that could change how the Internet is delivered.
Originally, Perlman talked about selling antennas to the likes of Verizon and AT&T. But he’s now exploring other options. He could bootstrap his own network, either through partners like Webpass or evenyou and me. He envisions people with super-fast home Internet connections—like, say, Google Fiber—plugging into pCells, essentially turning their homes into cell towers (and take a cut of the revenue).
By installing antennas on both homes and commercial buildings, Artemis could offer its own wireless service without going through AT&T or Verizon. Or it could just sell its available bandwidth to any wireless provider that needs it. If service is really poor for AT&T in a particular part of San Francisco, for example, pCell could provide a significant boost.
That’s how pCell could dovetail with Google’s Project Fi. The whole idea of Google’s new wireless service is that it lets you move from network to network. It’s not about which network you’ve signed up with; it’s about whichever network is better where you are at that exact moment. Today, Google has deals with T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. But it aims to expand. As Perlman and company erect more and more their pCell antennas, Project Fi could tap straight into this growing network. In this way, Google could bootstrap a far better Project Fi—even if AT&T and Verizon aren’t involved.
At the same time, pCell could also boost Google Fiber itself. Perlman’s antenna isn’t just a way of delivering signals to phones. It can also handle “backhaul,” the grunt work of moving Internal signals between, say, different businesses or homes. Webpass already does wireless backhaul using antennas from a company called Siklu, which send signals to the roof, and then wire lines carry this signal to the building below. But these antennas require a clear line of sight, which pCell’s don’t. By using pCell’s more efficient system for backhaul, the likes of Google Fiber could expand more quickly, since it wouldn’t need as many wires.
And pCell isn’t the only option. Siklu’s Boris Maysel says the company has other ways of delivering signals that aren’t so prone to interference. Facebook has built its own Internet antenna called Terragraph that it will soon deploy.
If they work as promised, all these antennas will provide better ways of delivering the Internet in cities and beyond. Even if Google doesn’t wind up using pCell, companies large and small are clearly at work seeking to accelerate the progress of the Internet’s underlying tech free from the control of any one provider. Whatever the specifics, that’s good news for everyone.