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For better broadband, keep watching the skies

Onetime WebTV head Steve Perlman is now the founder of Artemis Networks, which plans to offer wireless Internet service across Boston.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press/File 1996

Onetime WebTV head Steve Perlman is now the founder of Artemis Networks, which plans to offer wireless Internet service across Boston.

The skies of Boston may be raining broadband in another year or two. We’re in line to host two startups that might free us from today’s Internet monopolies, offering multiple options for getting online.

Starry Inc., a company based in Boston and New York, got a lot of ink last week when it announced it will sell a wireless Internet service capable of cable-like performance. Just attach a Starry antenna to the outside of your home, the company claims, and you’ll get download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second. Starry said it is carrying out technical trials and expects to plug in customers in the Boston area by summer.

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Artemis Networks LLC is a San Francisco outfit that also wants to transmit data sometime this year. It has joined with Webpass Inc., another San Francisco company that has installed a wireless Internet system in 10 Boston apartment buildings, including the luxury high-rise going up at Downtown Crossing where Filene’s used to be.

Webpass founder Charles Barr told me he’d love to serve the entire city, but its wireless technology is too costly for single-family homes. Enter Artemis, which plans to set up hundreds of “pWave” radios, each of them a miniature 4G LTE transmitter that will connect to the Internet through the Webpass fiber network. The companies expect to provide connections of around 12 megabits per second for mobile devices and as much as 100 megabits for users in fixed locations, such as houses.

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All these little radios will interfere with each other, and that’s usually a recipe for disaster. But Artemis claims it has invented a way to use the interference itself as a channel for transmitting and receiving data. The more interference, the better pWave is supposed to work. Artemis founder Steve Perlman told me that if the Federal Communications Commission gives the nod, service in Boston could begin this year.

Both Starry and Artemis rely on radical new technologies that may prove less impressive in the real world than in a lab. So skepticism is justified. But I’m hopeful about these two, because the people behind them are unusually good at failure.

Consider Starry’s founder, Chaitanya “Chet” Kanojia. His last brainstorm was Aereo, an alternative TV system that transmitted broadcast television shows over the Internet. Kanojia said he didn’t have to pay the TV networks for the privilege; the US Supreme Court disagreed. Goodbye Aereo.

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But I tried Aereo, and it worked exactly as advertised. Kanojia may not have a good handle on intellectual property law, but the man knows how to build a network.

Meanwhile Artemis’s Steve Perlman fathered two of the tech industry’s most interesting failures. In the mid-1990s, he developed WebTV, a now-forgotten attempt to turn living room sets into Web browsers. It worked so well that Microsoft Corp. bought the company for half a billion dollars, only to learn the hard way that consumers weren’t interested.

Then in 2009, Perlman launched OnLive, an ahead-of-its-time service that ran best-selling video games at a remote data center. For a monthly fee, OnLive subscribers could simply log on to play dozens of games. Again, the technology worked; again, the company flopped. Still, Sony Corp. bought the OnLive technology and now runs a similar game-subscription service through its PlayStation video-game console.

Perlman doesn’t always lose. His Mova motion-capture video technology premiered at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center 10 years ago. Since then, it’s won an Oscar, and been used in countless videogames, commercials, and Hollywood films.

With track records like these, Perlman and Kanojia are probably onto something. I desperately hope so. Today, Boston is a broadband wasteland because of the near-monopoly held by Comcast Corp.

I get excellent service from Comcast in my Dorchester home. But when my South End church asked Comcast about broadband service a few years back, the company demanded $20,000 to plug us in. Why? Because they could. Rival carrier RCN Telecom Services LLC covers only a few parts of the city. Google Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. have both refused to spend millions to plant fresh fiber in Boston, and Verizon’s slow DSL service is a pitiful substitute for true broadband.

Our digital salvation must come from above. Boston already has NetBlazr Inc. of Allston, a wireless Internet carrier with a few hundred clients scattered around town. If Starry and Artemis each work as advertised, we’ll have a truly competitive broadband market for the first time. That’s an idea that’s too good to fail.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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