AT&T’s AirGig catches the eye of Wisconsin utilities, officials

AT&T's Project AirGig is undergoing lab and field tests, with a 2019 or 2020 go-to-market date projected. Image: AT&T

AT&T’s new broadband over powerline technology, Project AirGig, is catching the eye of Wisconsin’s rural utility providers and local officials alike. According to more than one source, it could be a game-changer for delivering broadband throughout the state – even though the technology is at least three years away from reaching the marketplace.

An article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel detailed AirGig’s potential benefits to rural Wisconsin and collected opinions from local officials, consultants and naturally, AT&T spokespeople.

Wisconsin sat in 33rd place among U.S. states for average broadband speeds under the 2014 metric of 3 Mbps downstream/768 kbps upstream, according to the National Broadband Map. That has gotten much worse since: According to Speedtest by Ookla, the state ranks 49th as of August, averaging 28.59 Mbps/6.46 Mbps.

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While the director of the Wisconsin Technology Council, Tom Still, sees AirGig as a boon to rural areas of the state if it’s successfully deployed, technical problems and routine powerline issues like fallen trees could plague the system, according to the manager of the Washington Island Electric Co-op, Robert Cornell. Washington Island actually deployed a BPL system in 2005 to serve its 250 rural customers, but scrapped it in 2010 due to the amount of maintenance required. That system delivered about 5 Mbps – not bad for 2005, but well under the FCC’s current guideline of 25 Mbps downstream.

Officials in Pierce County are already impatient for broadband to reach their area, which they say is causing economic development issues. “We have gone for years trying to find out what AT&T's plans might be for broadband here, and we get no answers ... And then we see what’s happening in Minnesota, right across the border from us, and they are in a much better position,” Michael Kahlow, supervisor of the county’s board and director of its information services committee, told the Journal-Sentinel.

While AirGig is still very much in the testing phase, AT&T has high hopes for the technology and is selling it as such, with AT&T Wisconsin President Scott VanderSanden calling it a “game-changer.” AT&T Labs President and CTO Andre Feutsch said in a recent press conference that “we can actually deliver in the gigabit range and that’s why we think it’s different from the old BPL technologies most people are familiar with.”

AirGig could also work with electric utilities’ smart grid systems to help detect outages and downed power lines, and help with metering and delivery control, according to AT&T’s John Donovan, chief strategy officer.

Despite the potential promise of AirGig, it’s not surprising that some rural officials are skeptical. The last burst of investment for BPL happened in the late ‘aughts, with IBM putting several million dollars into powerline vendor IBEC in 2009 to further broadband access efforts. The movement petered out soon after, with Manassas, Virginia, shutting down its BPL after losing around $166,000 annually on the service.

For more:
- see this Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article

Related articles:
AT&T says AirGig overcomes earlier generation powerline technology issues
AT&T’s AirGig can challenge broadband powerline technology status quo - if it works
Broadband over powerline last mile networks: more hype than hope

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