Is Project AirGig the solution to all our broadband woes?

Could the answer to faster broadband be in the electricity power lines and pylons that already criss-cross the world? At Mobile World Congress last week all the talk was of 5G – the successor to 4G – but as a technical industry standard, 5G doesn't yet exist.

Nobody knows for sure what 5G means, or even what it is, let alone how and when it's going to arrive. So engineers at telecoms giant AT&T have come up with another technology designed to bring faster broadband and better signal quality to millions of homes that survive on slow (or no) internet: using existing medium-voltage power lines to support millions of plastic antennas and devices to create superfast Wi-Fi everywhere, without the need for cables or cell towers. 

With trials due to start later in 2017, can AirGig live up to its nickname of 'wireless fibre'?

What is AirGig?

AirGig is a broadband-over-power-lines (BPL) technology nicknamed 'wireless fibre' because its speeds are able to rival a fixed, physical fibre optic network. Although a new video doesn't give much away, the basics of AirGig are clear; this is not about using power lines as the network per se, but about putting radios on top of electricity pylons.

Those radios will communicate with each other independent of the pylons, with signals travelling along or near the electricity cables – not physically through them – to create ultra-fast wireless connectivity for any home, or smartphone, along the way. Cue 4K mobile video streaming, even in the countryside.

AirGig is a wireless evolution of broadband-over-power-lines tech (Image Credit: AT&T)

How does AirGig work?

Low-cost plastic antennas and devices are placed on top of the poles or pylons to carry signals over long distances. As a general concept it's nothing new – BPL has been worked on for decades – but only now are wireless speeds fast enough for it to be worth considering. The 'missing link' is millimetre wave (mmWave) or extremely high frequency (EHF), an undeveloped (and unlicensed) band of spectrum ideal for high speed, point-to-point wireless networks, such as that proposed by AirGig. 

Engineers testing 5G networks are also using mmWave, which only works at short-range – ideal for producing a high-speed network around poles and pylons. “There’s no direct electrical connection to the power line required,” explained Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer. “We’re experimenting with multiple ways to send a modulated radio signal around or near medium-voltage power lines.” Crucially, this is not just for broadband, but also mobile traffic.

Broadband signals are sent between radios positioned on top of electricity pylons

Fuetsch also explained how the radios that create multi-gigabit Wi-Fi signals are powered. “Power will be provided by inductive coupling, which uses the existing magnetic fields around power lines to provide power to Project AirGig equipment,” he said.

Why do we need AirGig?

The demand for fixed and wireless data is going ballistic, with AT&T reporting that data on its network has increased about 250,000% since 2007, almost all of which it attributes to the growth in video. However, there are still many people in the world – including in rural areas of the US – who suffer with slow internet connectivity, or indeed none whatsoever. AirGig might be a way of reaching them affordably.

However, fibre optic networks are the gold standard for broadband, and for many of us, the future of the internet. It's how continents are connected up using undersea cables. So why don't we just cover the world in fibre optics and ignore AirGig?

Technically, that is the answer to the problem (download speeds of 940Mbps are possible), but financially it's a non-starter. Such is the cost of installing physical cables, amplifiers and repeaters to every individual home and property that only a mere 23% of the US have access to it.

It's really only possible to install such networks in dense metropolitan areas, and that's not going to change drastically anytime soon. On the other hand, AirGig would be much easier and cheaper to deploy.

An AirGig network would be far easier to deploy than fibre (Image Credit: AT&T)

When will it happen?

BPL has been tested at AT&T's outdoor facility for a few years, but the company announced in February that it was in advanced discussions with power companies to trial Project AirGig in at least two locations before the end of 2017 – confirming that although one location will be in the US, the other won't be. This suggests that far from being a technology just for reaching remote rural communities of the US, AirGig could become a network technology used worldwide.

“We are looking forward to begin testing the possibilities of AT&T Labs’ invention for customers and utility companies,” says Fuetsch. There's a clue in his language – to make Project AirGig a reality means convincing myriad power companies who own the power lines to allow AT&T to use them.

Cue a campaign to convince them that AirGig could also help create smart grids. For instance, the AirGig radios could be installed with sensors that will alert the power companies if tree branches are getting close to the power lines.

Cheap, wireless last-mile access is what AirGig is all about

Could AirGig help create a 5G network?

The gigabit-per-second speed promised by AirGig is impressive, though not quite on a par with the technically possible 10Gbps plus speeds mooted by some in the telecoms industry.

In fact, some telecoms operators claim to have already achieved speeds up to 20Gbps in lab trials, with less than 1 millisecond of latency (the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream). So AirGig should probably be thought of as a stepping stone technology.

“AT&T is focused on delivering a gigabit-per-second speed everywhere we can with our wired and wireless technologies," said Fuetsch, hinting at a tech-neutral approach, but he has high hopes for AirGig. “We believe future 5G services will be one of the potential uses for Project AirGig.”

AT&T’s John Donovan talks AirGig at CES 2017

A transformative technology?

There's obviously some haste to create 5G-like speeds – or at least something that can be sold to people as 5G – as soon as possible, despite 2020 being the year mooted at MWC 2017 for the commencement of 5G networks.

“We’re not waiting until the final standards are set to lay the foundation for our evolution to 5G. We’re executing now,” said AT&T's John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president, Technology and Operations, at CES 2017. “Project AirGig has tremendous potential to transform internet access globally – well beyond our current broadband footprint and not just in the US.”

However, he also confirmed that, for now, Project AirGig is still very much in the experimentation phase. Either way, it's potentially an ingenious way of using legacy equipment to make near-global broadband a reality.

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