AT&T's AirGig shows wireless internet over power lines is possible

Existing power cables strung between mid-voltage utility poles can wirelessly send broadband into people’s homes, AT&T says

AT&T's AirGig shows wireless internet over power lines is possible
Credit: ©IDG Communications, Inc. Photo contributed by Matthew Mikaelian

High-speed wireless internet could soon be delivered over power lines, according to a major mobile network operator that announced positive test results of a proposed system.

AT&T says its project, called AirGig, will deliver multiple gigabit-speed wireless internet by creating broadband signals that will emanate from the power lines crossing the country and beyond.

The company says it won’t actually connect its equipment directly to the powerline cables but will simply use the wires as way to send modulated radio signals to individuals’ homes, smartphones, tablets and so on. The equipment sits atop the utility poles and uses the existing wires for transmitting and receiving.

“We’re experimenting with multiple ways to send a modulated radio signal around or near medium-voltage power lines,” AT&T explains in its press release.

Key to the functionality are “low-cost plastic antennas” that the company says it invented, along with “devices” that “regenerate” millimeter wave signals. Those radio frequencies “can be used for 4G LTE and 5G multi-gigabit mobile and fixed deployments,” AT&T says. License-free spectrum, though, is one of the features AT&T touts of AirGig.

In addition, the company says much of the equipment is already in situ. In other words, the utility poles and the signal-distributing wires are pre-existing. Presumably, a power supply is also conveniently available for the radios. Not having to build out new infrastructure, like erecting masts, keeps costs low.

AT&T also says because its system would allow last-mile broadband to the home over the air rather than by having to dig trenches and lay fiber, it is going to cost less than other solutions.

Interestingly, AT&T hints that it may be seeing itself as a bit of a utility company assistant and says it will be able to help electricity suppliers by aiding them with their smart grids.

It’s sucking up. AT&T will need to offer the electricity suppliers something in exchange for the real estate because although it owns patents to the AirGig technology, developed by AT&T Labs, it will be painfully aware that the utilities could hinder the rollout.

The battle for utility poles

Google’s failure to deliver its high-speed fiber internet nationally, on any great scale, is because incumbent utilities have been nobbling Google’s access to the utility poles. Ironically, the blockers who are stalling Google’s fiber rollout in Nashville are led by AT&T.

Nashville has, though, approved a plan, which the Tennessean reports was green-lit on Tuesday. That day, amusingly, was the same day that AT&T issued its AirGig press release.

The Nashville city council’s ordinance, called “One touch makes ready,” will allow new pole users, such as Google, move other companies' equipment around to make the city-owned pole ready for the new gear.

In Nashville, the months-long delays for newcomers had been caused by incumbents’ insistence on moving their own wires, switches and so on to make room. They had taken their sweet time getting the job done for their competitors.

“Companies now appear to be preparing for a legal fight,” the Tennessean says of Comcast's and AT&T’s displeasure of the ordinance.

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