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AT&T thinks power lines may yet hold the secret to speedy, low-cost internet

Unlike past technologies, AirGig works near, not over, utility lines.


AT&T plans to start testing next year a new technology it says can deliver multiple gigabit-per-second internet by sending signals wirelessly along the path of power lines.

Unlike past efforts, though, AirGig is designed to send the signal near, but not directly through, the power lines. There was a huge effort more than a decade ago to send internet over power lines that largely flopped due to slow speeds and high deployment costs.

“When you say ‘broadband’ and ‘power line’ in the same sentence there is a tendency to yawn,” AT&T chief strategy officer John Donovan acknowledged during a conference call with reporters. But, he said, “behind every leapfrog [are] a lot of failed attempts.”

The technology, while it is not yet a reality, holds the promise of offering lower-cost internet in both congested cities and in rural and hard-to-reach areas that currently have electrical power but not high-speed internet.

AT&T has tested the technology in its own facilities and developed a low-cost plastic antenna that can send the signals along the path of power lines. In addition to proving that the technology works in the real world, AT&T would also need to strike deals with the power companies whose lines it wishes to use.

Donovan said the technology could allow the power companies to also add smarts to their power grids, using the wireless technology to detect and inform about problems along the lines.

While trials are slated to start next year, the technology won’t be ready for some time, Donovan acknowledged, saying AirGig is about a year behind 5G technology, which is unlikely to be commercially ready until at least 2018 even for home broadband connections.

Donovan said that the company hasn’t firmly added AirGig to its own technology roadmap, but hopes to use it both in the U.S. and potentially in other countries where it doesn't currently offer service.

AT&T hadn’t previously talked about AirGig but said it decided to go public because people were starting to notice the hundred or so patents it had filed.

To get a better understanding of how it works, AT&T released a video outlining the technology.

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