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September 22, 2016

Gigabit Data Over Power Lines Closer to Reality With AT&T's Airgig

The notion of using power lines—now pretty much ubiquitous over most of the United States and large parts of the world—as a method to transmit high-speed Internet access isn't new, even if it's been stymied several times over the course of its life. AT&T Labs, however, may have found the way to actually put this concept to use in its new Airgig technology, which may finally solve the “last mile” problem so many have had before.

AT&T's Airgig system turns to a series of wireless routers placed atop power poles, which are then used to transmit data over a millimeter waveband. Interestingly, this isn't the first time such a thing has been considered or even attempted; while AT&T is set to stage field trials of this new technology starting sometime in 2017, millimeter wave systems are busting out all over. Google was reportedly looking into it as a way to streamline its Google Fiber deployments, particularly when it comes to that aforementioned last mile connection between the lines and individual houses, the biggest issue of connectivity. Facebook is working on a similar system for San Jose, and back in January, Aereo's Chet Kanojia was working on still another version known as Starry.

Right now, one of the biggest concerns is issues of weather; rain and similar moisture—snow, even thick fog—can interfere with the signal. Airgig is set to beat this by using very close transmissions and some wire-bound devices to regenerate signals as need be.

The tests are what will really tell how well this works, but if it works as expected, this may be the solution to rural bandwidth issues as well as the increasing bandwidth crunch. While the ongoing development of 5G is certainly providing some cause for hope, the idea of being able to spread fiber access to just about any power pole is likewise inspirational. A series of wireless routers sounds like it might be a recipe for failure—if even one goes down the whole signal chain may be lost—but with some extra development, it might be just the thing. If these companies can get such systems in place before 5G goes commercial in a bit over three years, that may take some of the starch out of the demand sails for 5G as well, which could have some unexpected effects on the overall market.

Getting Internet access where it needs to be isn't easy, but the rewards are potentially massive. Airgig might solve a major problem and land AT&T a substantial new customer base.

Edited by Alicia Young

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