AT&T said its Project AirGig, an initiative to extend gigabit wireless internet speeds over existing power lines, will succeed because it is using a new approach that runs alongside, rather than within, the power line itself on medium voltage power lines.
The telco plans to use the technology to potentially deliver multi-gigabit speeds in urban, rural and underserved markets.
As part of the 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. But there’s no direct electrical connection to the powerline that’s required.
John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T technology and operations, said during a press conference that the telco is aware of the previous challenges with first generation BPL technology, but is confident its method will deliver higher bandwidth with minimal expense.
“We have had researchers addressing the challenges that have hampered what would nominally be viewed as similar approaches over the last decade,” Donovan said. “If you remember the things that plagued powerline technology in the past is that it had to be in the powerline, went to the home in the powerline, and it had a high deployment cost.”
Other benefits of AT&T’s powerline technology approach include that it leverages inductive powering to get power from the existing utility lines and that it can act as its own backhaul mechanism.
“It is own backhaul and that’s the elegance here in that a signal can be repeated from cone to cone and when it distributes it distributes as 4G or 5G,” Donovan said.
Following ongoing testing it conducted in outdoor facilities, AT&T said that it plans to start formal field trials next year. However, the telco would not specify in what markets it would trial the AirGig technology.
AT&T began looking at this new technology in order to find another way to scale broadband further at a lower cost than traditional methods. AT&T said that Project AirGig delivers last-mile access without any new FTTH technology and it is flexible enough to be configured with small cells or distributed antenna systems.
Andre Fuetsch, president and CTO of AT&T Labs, said that the earlier generation BPL technology could not achieve higher data rates due to its approach.
“Broadband over powerline was using the actual conductor itself and was in low frequencies in the 100 MHz range,” Fuetsch said. “With all of the step down and step down it made it not that cost effective, but more importantly they could not get the speeds out that technology that we’re seeing today with the technology we’re deploying today.”
Fuetsch added 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.”
Smart grid potential
While it could not talk about any pending agreements, AT&T said that it could enable and expand a number of smart grid applications for power companies. The service could also allow for early detection of line integrity issues, such as encroaching tree branches.
“If you think about it from a utility company perspective, there are benefits not only to consumers and to the traditional delivery of their service, but also to the utility company as well,” Donovan said. “While this system is in the process of doing front haul and backhaul to deliver wireless capability it can also enable a lot of smart grid applications for the power company.”
A power company could use AirGig to conduct proactive maintenance by pinpointing specific locations, down to the line segment. It could also support utility companies’ meter, appliance and usage control systems.
“It can allow for early detection when there’s integrity issues on the line and that might be something as simple as an encroaching tree branch,” Donovan said. “We will be able to immediately detect that encroachment and pinpoint the specific location down to the line segment itself so proactive maintenance can be done by the electric utilities.”
Donovan added that “we can support the utility companies’ meter, appliance and all their usage control systems in addition to providing them that maintenance capability that from our perspective we don’t see that industry has today.”
While the opportunity to serve power companies is certainly appealing, the next question is whether AT&T has agreements in place with local utilities.
AT&T said that it will have to work with local utilities, but could not share any specific details yet.
Initially targeting the U.S. market, AT&T sees the potential to bring AirGig to other international markets.
“This would obviously have to be with some partnerships with the local utilities to make this work,” Fuetsch said. “We don’t see this as an in footprint play, but something that could go globally so we’ll use the trial to figure out the relationships and partnerships to make this scalable.”
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