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AT&T Labs Propose AirGig Wireless Powerline Broadband Technology

Friday, September 23rd, 2016 (1:05 am) - Score 1,423

The research and development division of global telecoms giant AT&T has begun to develop a new twist on the old Powerline Communications idea, but instead of sending electrical signals over the national grid’s power cables it would use the cables to “guide” a wireless broadband transmission.

Some years ago the idea of using Powerline Communications (PLC) to solve national connectivity problems seemed like a real possibility. The technology worked by allowing for the transmission of broadband to be conducted along existing national grid power cables (i.e. separating the electricity and Internet service into two separate wavelengths).

However PLC struggled to deliver the performance that it initially promised and then there were problems with interference, especially at higher frequencies, which created somewhat of a regulatory challenge. In the end PLC couldn’t evolve faster than traditional fixed line alternatives (e.g. FTTC, FTTP, Cable etc.) and the technology faded into obscurity.

Now say hello to AirGig, which AT&T Labs believes will be “easier to deploy than fibre, can run over license-free spectrum” and would deliver “low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds using power lines.” Wireless using power lines? Yes.. but not as you know it, Jim.

How Does it Work?

Apparently the new technology, which is supported by more than 100 patents, is experimenting with multiple ways to send a modulated radio signalaround or near” medium-voltage power lines.

Just to be clear, there’s “no direct electrical connection to the power line required” and this is intended to be a “last-mile access” solution, one which can also be configured with small cells or distributed antenna systems.

John Donovan, AT&T’s Chief Strategy Person, said:

“We believe Project AirGig has the potential to quickly bring connectivity to all parts of the world. Our researchers are addressing the challenges that hampered similar approaches a decade ago, such as megabit per second speeds and high deployment costs.

Project AirGig is still very much in the experimentation phase. That said, I’m excited about what AT&T Labs’ engineers have developed to date. Our overall access approach, in conjunction with our software-defined network architecture, is unmatched in its ability to usher in connected experiences like augmented reality, virtual reality, self-driving cars, telemedicine and 4K mobile video. Big urban city. Small rural town. Around the world.”

As part of Project AirGig, AT&T Labs invented low-cost plastic antennas and devices located along the power line to regenerate millimeter wave (mmWave) signals (around 30GHz+) that can be used for 4G LTE and 5G multi-gigabit mobile and fixed deployments. These patent-pending devices could mean lower hardware and deployment costs while maintaining good signal quality.

AT&T believes that Project AirGig could also be a benefit to utility companies, such as by enabling them to expand a variety of smart-grid applications. It could also allow for early detection of line integrity issues, such as encroaching tree branches. Power companies could use it to pinpoint specific locations, down to the line segment, where proactive maintenance could prevent problems. It could also support utility companies’ meter, appliance and usage control systems.

So far so good, but then the early forms of PLC technology were often accompanied by similarly bold claims and yet it could never overcome the problems faster than the existing market was able to adapt. The first field trials of AirGig are due to take place in 2017 and that means that a commercial product might not follow until 2018.

On top of that the technology is currently being built around standards in the USA, thus it would most likely need another year on top of all that to jump through regulatory hurdles in the UK and that’s assuming anybody wants to try it. By 2019/20 the market for AirGig could be more challenging.

Leave a Comment
9 Responses
  1. Avatar Chris P

    Sounds promising but what actually is it?
    Wireless over powerlines makes no sense.

    • I’ve been racking my brain over this and the only explanation I could reach is that they might be miss-communicating how the technology works in order to make it sound as if it’s doing something clever, when actually it’s much simpler.

      In my mind what they’re really doing is using the power cables as a guide for some sort of mmW high frequency point-to-point directed wireless transmission (think Microwave). Since the towers normally exist at known heights and distances then they can tweak nodes on the path (at each tower) to relay their signal from tower to tower, powered by the infrastructure it sits on top of.

      By taking that repeater style approach you could deliver a multi-Gigabit connection over a wide distance, with a smaller off-shoot transmitting directly to homes along the way. But if that’s the approach then I have doubts about the cost claims and it sounds better as a back-haul than end-user solution. However this is just me guessing, I don’t know for sure.

    • Avatar TWKND

      Seems like they’re just using the powerlines as prebuilt masts so they can transmit between them without worrying about obstructions.

    • Avatar TheManStan

      Might it be some form of resonant inductive coupling that they can propagate along the powerline to keep power usage low?

    • Avatar Keydogg

      Sounds great but wouldn’t this mean that latency would be really high as each packet would be going through a tonne of hops?

    • Avatar wireless pacman

      No reason it should be if the latency per hop is under control.

  2. Avatar craski

    We are not used to seeing antennas etc on top of pylons here in the UK but in the US it is pretty common for the mobile network operators to mount their kit on top of electricity pylons.

  3. Avatar Chris P

    It’s funny that no one knows what this is.

    Using the wires for high quality (thick copper vs thin) bidirectional come whilst using the power to power active kit to regenerate the traffic is a great idea, if that’s what they are doing.

  4. Avatar Martin

    Why not just string a fibre optic cable/trunking along with the power lines. after all the electric poles around here, rural wales, go to very house. the sparkles could sell the broadband as well. they would love it.

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