AT&T Experimenting With Broadband Internet Delivery Using Power Lines

Field trials are slated to begin in 2017, says the company, as it works to improve the availability of internet access everywhere.

AT&T, broadband, internet access, Project AirGig, power lines, Project Loon, rural broadband

AT&T has unveiled its Project AirGig experimental program that aims to use power lines as a way to extend internet access to hard-to-reach users in urban, rural and underserved parts of the world.

The first field tests involving Project AirGig technologies are set to begin in 2017 through AT&T Labs, the company said in a Sept. 21 announcement, with the goal of eventually delivering low-cost, multigigabit wireless internet speeds over power lines.

Currently, the work is in the experimentation phase, according to AT&T, with initial and ongoing testing at AT&T outdoor facilities showing positive results.

"Project AirGig has tremendous potential to transform internet access globally—well beyond our current broadband footprint and not just in the United States," John Donovan, the chief strategy officer and president of AT&T's technology and operations group, said in a statement. "The results we've seen from our outdoor labs testing have been encouraging, especially as you think about where we're heading in a 5G world. To that end, we're looking at the right global location to trial this new technology next year."

So far, the company has more than 100 patents or patent applications supporting the AirGig technology, according to AT&T. The idea centers on experimenting with multiple ways to send a modulated radio signal around or near medium-voltage power lines, without an actual direct electrical connection to the power line. The system will not require the laying of new fiber or in-home connections and could be configured with small wireless cells or distributed antenna systems, says AT&T.

Low-cost plastic antennas and other devices created by AT&T would be used as part of the system and would work with 4G LTE and 5G multigigabit mobile and fixed deployments, the company said.

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

While the project is still very much in the experimentation phase, the ideas being developed by AT&T Labs engineers are providing possibilities that could deliver improved internet connections for many users in the future, he said.

"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," he said. "Big urban city. Small rural town. Around the world."

Providing many rural areas with fast and affordable broadband internet access has continued to be a problem across the United States and around the world due to the costs of deploying infrastructure in areas that lack centralized populations of potential users.

A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in April found that some 7 percent of U.S. adults depend mostly on their smartphones for internet access because they have no broadband access at home, according to an earlier eWEEK report.

Google has also been conducting ongoing experiments to expand rural and remote internet connectivity in rural and remote locations through its Project Loon initiative, which is set to deliver the services using a global network of high-altitude balloons. Eventually, the vision is to use the balloon-powered network to deliver low-cost internet connectivity to some 4 billion people around the world who don't have access to it presently.