Nokia Networks plans to trial Artemis Networks' pCell technology with carriers

Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK) is partnering with wireless startup Artemis Networks (a 2014 Fierce 15 winner) to jointly test Artemis' pCell technology with wireless carriers inside and outside of the United States in 2016. Artemis also plans on selling wholesale LTE data capacity.

The tests will initially be in large indoor venues and other high density areas, such a stadiums, arenas, large indoor shopping malls, airports, college campuses and inside of buildings of large enterprises. Under the agreement, the companies will jointly offer pCell proof-of-concept deployments to selected Nokia Networks customers. The companies may extend the collaboration to consider further advanced features that could be enabled by pCells, such as precise 3D location positioning, the firms said.

In an interview with FierceWirelessTech, Steve Perlman, founder and CEO of Artemis, said that the company has been talking to numerous vendors about partnerships since the company burst onto the scene in February 2014, but talks with Nokia picked up this spring and summer. He said that at this point Artemis has done "due diligence" with around a dozen operators, including ones inside the U.S. and carriers from abroad, and that it has convinced skeptics that is technology is real.

Artemis described its pCell system as a software-defined radio Cloud-RAN that connects through fronthaul to pWave radios distributed throughout the coverage area. The pCell system exploits radio signal interference, rather than trying to reduce or eliminate it, to synthesize a 1-centimeter diameter "personal cell" around the antenna of any standard LTE device in the coverage area.

He said Nokia is making the deal public because "we're about to go in and start a trial with a partner" and that because Nokia is a leading TD-LTE vendor, pCell technology could be a "very good fit" for Nokia's carrier partners.  Perlman said Artemis is open to working with other vendors but is excited to work with Nokia.

Nokia Networks CTO Hossein Moiin said in a separate interview with FierceWirelessTech that Nokia first became aware of Artemis' technology last year and that he personally demoed it in September, though Nokia engineers had been looking at pCell throughout 2015. Moiin said pCell has generated cause for optimism. "Any technology needs to solve a significant problem, and this one does," he said. "It solves the shortage of spectrum. It's a very attractive problem to solve. That alone is an importance, which I would like to make sure Nokia is aware of."

Perlman said that the first carrier Nokia and Artemis are working with wanted to start the trial Nov. 1 but that because of the time needed to set it up the trial will kick off in late 2015 or early 2016. He said more trials and announcements from Nokia customers are likely to come soon.

"The biggest pinch points for carriers are in high-density areas," he said. "It's the hardest part to solve for conventional cellular and the easiest thing to solve for us."

Moiin confirmed that the first trial will likely be concluded by the end of the first quarter of 2016 and is taking place outside of the United States. The trials, he said, are going to be used to test whether pCell really solves the problem of a shortage of spectrum for thousands of users, and whether it can be scaled up. "I'm optimistic that it will solve that problem but I don't know that solves that problem," he said. "Theoretically it's possible."

"The first trial will be designed to show whether the pCell technology can work with an existing core network and whether it can scale to many users," Moiin said. "Once we have answers to those two questions then can begin to think of trials as operators trialing the technology to see if it meets their requirements," he added. "That second phase will come after we have completed this first phase with Nokia and one operator. And that is something that will open the door to many operators."

Given that Nokia does not have unlimited resources, Moiin said, future trials will be determined based on interest from operators as well as potential business outcomes for Nokia. The vendor wants to explore the possibilities of using pCell for spectrum re-use, whether it will fit into 5G technology development or be something that simply optimizes LTE networks – and whether it can be added to Nokia's own products and solutions, Moiin said.

Artemis is leasing spectrum from Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH) in San Francisco Dish, through its wholly-owned subsidiary American H Block Wireless LLC, will lease the 1900 MHz PCS H Block spectrum it controls in San Francisco to Artemis for up to two years.

Perlman said that in the last few weeks Artemis got FCC approval to license the spectrum and deploy its technology on 58 rooftops in San Francisco. Artemis is working in San Francisco with a firm called Webpass, which controls around 600 rooftop locations in San Francisco. Artemis will install its radios on Webpass' rooftops.

Earlier this year Artemis intended to launch its own service in San Francisco once it received FCC approval to lease the spectrum. Artemis aimed to offer MVNO service via its own SIM cards with one of the Tier 1 U.S. carriers for when users are roaming outside of the Artemis service area in San Francisco.

However, that is no longer the case. Perlman said the company is getting inquiries from MVNOs and operators inside and outside the U.S. that roam on the networks of Tier 1 carriers that were looking for wholesale LTE capacity. Over the course of the spring and summer Artemis changed its focus. "Our cost of deployment is a fraction of a cellular system," Perlman explained of the benefit pCell technology can bring to other carriers.

"We would rather provide the technology and have a B2B relationship with MVNOs and roaming carriers," he said, adding that Artemis talked to MVNOs about selling phones that could use its technology. "To add B2C to our list of things as a startup is a huge whole swath of competency -- customer support, etc. -- that we'd rather not get into. We're focused on being a pure wholesale LTE operator."

Artemis does not have any announced agreements with carriers seeking wholesale capacity, Perlman said. He added that company aims to go through its trials with Nokia and get more Tier 1 carrier announcements.

"It's nice to be on the other side of the fence," he said, adding that the Nokia deal brings a great deal of credibility to Artemis. "Rather than being this cold fusion company saying, 'This is real, look at us, look at us.'"

Moiin added that "this is very exciting." He recalled that "many years ago when I went to engineering school I wanted to solve problems like this: problems that can't be solved."  

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