AT&T Testing Super-Fast Wireless Internet Using Power Lines

While good chunks of the country, particularly rural and tribal lands, currently lack access to high speed broadband, most inhabited parts of America are serviced by power lines. AT&T is currently testing a new project that aims to deliver data at fiberoptic speeds, but without having to run any new cables or build huge cellular or microwave towers.

AT&T Labs announced today that it hopes to start field testing Project AirGig, which uses existing utility lines, in early 2017.

To be clear, Project AirGig won’t be running any data through the power lines. Instead, it uses the area around or near the lines to carry data wirelessly to new, low-cost plastic antennae that rest on the utility poles.

AirGig uses ultra-high frequency millimeter wave spectrum, which many believe will be key to the eventual rollout of 5G wireless tech. It’s capable of delivering data at very fast speeds, but has trouble with things like walls and trees.

If AirGig works, it would be a way to launch a new high-speed network with fewer infrastructure costs. That could mean providing high-speed broadband to areas that currently rely on dial-up, slow DSL, or satellite.

It may, depending on what providers ultimately charge for a service like this, preempt situations like the story of Seth, the Comcast customer in Washington state who was lied to by both CenturyLink and Comcast about his new house being connected to their data networks. Not only was he not connected, but neither company was willing to offer him a reasonable deal on running a cable from his house to the nearest existing network line.

An option like AirGig could allow a provider to deploy high-speed service without having to run any physical connection to the end-user.

Now that AT&T owns DirecTV, it has a direct interest in providing better broadband to rural areas. Many of DirecTV’s more than 20 million subscribers live in areas that are underserved by high-speed networks, and a low-cost wireless-to-the-home option would allow AT&T to have these people as pay-TV, data, and wireless phone customers. Additionally, AT&T might be able to offer service outside its existing landline/fiber footprint, bringing much needed competition to the broadband market.

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