10 years ago, when high-speed Internet was still in its infancy, a number of tech companies including Google and IBM sought to establish Internet connections through standard electrical outlets rather than coaxial cables. Coax cables were the dominant medium for broadband connections at the time, but their reach was still somewhat limited. By offering Broadband service over power lines (BPL), these companies hoped to reach new markets in foreign countries and rural areas that lacked robust cable infrastructures. Unfortunately, the development costs of BPL proved to be prohibitively expensive. BPL also encountered a number of technical issues including slow transfer speeds and interference with emergency radios.
Now, a decade later, AT&T hopes to deploy a more refined version of BPL to bring broadband Internet with multi-gigabit wireless speeds to remote areas. Whereas the first generation of BPL was designed as an alternative to coax connections, AT&T is now targeting markets that lack fiber optic infrastructure. Fiber optic connections might still be hard to come by in many rural areas, but you can find nearby power lines just about anywhere.
AT&T has named the service Project AirGig, and it’s expected to enter field trials sometime next year.
First, the team behind Project AirGig will install plastic antennas capable of transmitting data signals on existing power lines. Then, they’ll use the electromagnetic field from the power lines to carry the signals across the wires from antenna to antenna. By relying on the inexpensive plastic antennas, AT&T expects to make AirGig far more cost-effective than earlier BPL projects.
It’s an elegantly simple solution, but it remains to be seen whether Project AirGig will work as well in practice as it does in theory. The multi-gigabit speeds predicted by AT&T, for example, might be a little optimistic. If the data signals are subject to decay over long distances, speeds in remote areas could be far lower than advertised. Power lines are also more susceptible to outages than subterranean fiber optic cables, which could prove problematic for businesses that depend on reliable Internet connections. In fact, the AirGig team has even acknowledge that the project is still “very much in the experimentation phase,” and that they’re still working to overcome some of the same limitations that plagued BPL ten years ago.
That said, it will certainly be interesting to see what AT&T is able to accomplish with Project AirGig when it begins field testing in 2017.