AT&T’s AirGig can challenge broadband powerline technology status quo - if it works



Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

AT&T has reignited a conversation about broadband over powerline (BPL) technology, announcing plans to start trials of its AirGig service, but given previous failed attempts by other providers questions will be raised on whether they can make it work in the real world. When it launches the service following field tests, AT&T said it will be able deliver multi-gigabit speeds in urban, rural and underserved markets without deploying new towers or trenching ditches for fiber.

Apart from being a plan from a large carrier, what’s different about AT&T’s BPL approach? Anyone that’s followed earlier iterations of BPL will soon remember that the technology never lived up to the hype.

AT&T is confident it can succeed with BPL. Unlike approaches called for service providers, the telco’s approach is to run data alongside, rather than within, the power line itself on medium voltage power lines.

Leveraging 100 patents the telco has filed on the Project AirGig technology, AT&T created low-cost plastic antennas and devices located along or near the power line to regenerate millimeter wave (mmWave) signals that can be used for 4G LTE and 5G multi-gigabit mobile and fixed deployments. 

Other than saying it is using inductive power in order to locate the antennas near the utility wires versus inside them, details about the actual process and technology are lacking.

Andre Fuetsch, president AT&T Labs and CTO for AT&T, said that this approach will allow it to overcome the speed and cost limitations of earlier BPL iterations.

“This is not a technology that actually uses the powerline itself or the conductive material, but actually rides right alongside it,” Fuetsch said during a press conference. “I can’t provide many details, but the way it works is it takes advantage of medium power lines on poles and that’s how these wireless signals are distributed.”

Fuetsch added that its approach can also “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” in a more cost effective manner that could not be achieve in previous generations of BPL technology.”

Multiple uses

Besides using the AirGig technology as an alternative broadband service delivery option, AT&T wants to attract the utility industry to apply the service to their unique needs.

Specifically, it would offer local utility companies the ability to proactively monitor faults on their line by pinpointing specific locations, down to the line segment.

For example, AT&T could detect the encroachment of a tree branch and pinpoint the specific location down to the line segment itself so proactive maintenance. Additionally, the service could also support utility companies’ meter, appliance and usage control systems as part of a smart grid program.

Offering services to utilities makes sense to AT&T on two levels: it could gain a secondary revenue source while enhancing the relationship it already has with this segment, as it currently strings its copper and fiber on the poles in the markets it serves today.

Overcoming skepticism

AT&T will have to prove that AirGig will work in a large scale deployment. Although BPL was once heralded as a viable alternative there are plenty of examples where the technology failed to make a large dent in the broadband market.

Notable examples of failed BPL deployments are Manassas, Virginia, which had a small BPL network, and Manchester, England-based Nor.Web -- a joint venture between Nortel and United Utilities.

Like other efforts, Manassas' BPL network was praised by the industry trade press as a broadband over powerline success story. Initially run by COMTek, the Manassas City council was told by the then-private powerline operator COMTek that the city could "expect $4.5 million in revenue from awarding a 10 year BPL franchise,” but it never quite reached those heights. Fast forward to February 2010 and Manassas reported $186,000 in BPL revenues, but the cost to maintain the network was slightly above $351,000, meaning the city was losing about $166,000 annually.

Earlier, the Nor.Web project which began in 1998, shut down only a year later in 1999 after Nortel and Northern Utilities said that market conditions could not justify the cost of scaling the service.

"Within the very competitive broadband access arena, where large scale deployments of high speed technologies are in progress and Nortel Networks has a strong portfolio, the market potential for DPL, based on current forecasts, cannot justify continued focus," Nortel and United Utilities said, according to a report in The Register.  

Before AT&T can get AirGig off the ground, the telco will have to strike deals with local utilities. AT&T told FierceTelecom that it could not provide any details about any utility company relationships.   

The one thing that AT&T does have on its side is that it already has a 100-year old relationship with the utilities. It could use those relationships and the notion of selling them smart grid services as an entrée to start conversations and garner agreements.

Given all of the previous failures to make BPL work, it’s hard to not ignore the skepticism about BPL's viability. But with few details to go on AT&T will face an uphill battle to convince the telecom industry that AirGig is not just another science experiment.--Sean