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AT&T AirGig could mean 100-megabit rural broadband in 2021

Expect hundreds of megabits per second, maybe even a gigabit, even in sparsely populated areas -- as long as homes are near power lines.

AT&T's AirGig technology sends data along power lines -- around them, not in them -- using relatively simple antennas the carrier calls eggs. Here, the larger egg is a AirGig prototype in a demonstration that actually sent data down the line. The smaller egg is is a mockup closer to how AT&T hopes the AirGig equipment eventually will look.

AT&T's AirGig technology sends data along power lines -- around them, not in them -- using relatively simple antennas the carrier calls eggs. Here, the larger egg is an AirGig prototype in a demonstration that actually sent data down the line. The smaller egg is is a mockup closer to how AT&T hopes the AirGig equipment eventually will look.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

AT&T hopes its AirGig technology for piggybacking high-speed data links on power lines will arrive in 2021, potentially improving broadband in areas where it's not economical to lay fiber-optic cables.

AirGig doesn't connect directly to houses. Instead, it sends data hopping along from power pole to power pole so it can traverse relatively long distances. For that final communication link to a house, AT&T will use more conventional wireless equipment like 5G mobile networks.

"We're aiming to be ready to deploy it commercially in the 2021 timeframe," said Mark Evans, a director on AT&T's AirGig team, at the AT&T Spark event Monday in San Francisco. The timing could change, he cautioned: "It could be things go swimmingly and we could move that date in."

AirGig has the potential to help solve a thorny problem for the tech industry: making sure it's not just people in densely populated areas like New York City and San Francisco who get the latest services. Rural broadband is often an oxymoron, denying people outside cities and denser suburbs access to next-gen services in video streaming, e-commerce and online learning. AirGig won't reach everywhere, but it could help.

AT&T unveiled AirGig in 2016 and began testing it with Georgia Power in 2017. Now AT&T has started working with equipment manufacturers to build more refined hardware for a new round of AirGig testing most likely in 2019, said Gordon Mansfield, AT&T's vice president of converged access and devices.

AirGig could bring data to millions of people

It's not clear exactly where AT&T and its partners will find it economical to deploy AirGig, but in a video testimonial, Georgia Power Chief Executive Paul Bowers said it could reach "almost everywhere in our state" and "usher in a new era of connectivity for millions of customers."

AT&T's AirGig sends data along power lines then uses 5G or other wireless networks to connect to nearby houses. In this mockup, the "eggs" shuttle the data along the lines and the black central device links to houses.

AT&T's AirGig sends data along power lines then uses 5G or other wireless networks to connect to nearby houses. In this mockup, the "eggs" shuttle the data along the lines and the black central device links to houses.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

AirGig will send data along power lines at multiple gigabits per second to power wireless links to houses that work at hundreds of megabits per second, perhaps more, Mansfield said.

"It's too early to say whether it's gigabit," he said, referring to the current US broadband state of the art with fiber-optic lines that ISPs like AT&T, Sonic and Verizon offer.

AT&T has been cagey about AirGig details but shared more at the Spark event with its first public demonstration on a pair of miniature power poles. In its demo, AT&T sent live video from one power pole to the other with AirGig prototype hardware.

Easy to install

Buried in an AT&T AirGig egg is a small antenna called a polyrod phased array that actually beams the data along a power line.

Buried in an AT&T AirGig egg is a small antenna called a polyrod phased array that actually beams the data along a power line.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

A key part of the AirGig technology is that it's not complicated to install. Antenna modules -- AT&T calls them eggs -- clamp in pairs on the power line extending each direction from the power pole. The medium-voltage power line itself powers the eggs inductively, similar to how wireless charging pads for phones work, so no specific power connection is required.

The eggs configure themselves automatically, and the early test showed it takes people 10 minutes to hook up to the network, said AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch.

The data is sent directly along the power line itself. The wire acts as a waveguide that channels the signal and improves the transmission quality compared to traveling through plain old air, Evans said.

"The signal energy clings like a glow to this wire," said AT&T radio technology engineer Peter Wolniansky in an onstage demonstration. Electromagnetic physics governs how, he said: "It's bound by Maxwell's equations to stick to this wire."

Data speeds of 90 gigabits per second

His demonstration showed data capacity of 90 gigabits per second -- enough to stream thousands of HD-quality movies at the same time, once distributed to houses. "You can serve hundreds if not thousands of homes with this," Wolniansky said.

AT&T demonstrated AirGig data link running along miniature power lines. It works with wooden, concrete or metal power poles, and multiple AirGig links can be installed in parallel along different wires.

AT&T demonstrated an AirGig data link running along miniature power lines. It works with wooden, concrete or metal power poles, and multiple AirGig links can be installed in parallel along different wires.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

In fact, AT&T discovered the physical basis for AirGig accidentally when engineers noticed that data sent wirelessly behaved differently when it happened to be traveling in the same direction as a power line, Evans said.

Companies have tried sending data along power lines before, using them just as wires, but that technology petered out at just tens of kilobits per second, Evans said. AirGig is another beast altogether.

"Utilizing AirGig as backhaul starts to change the economics" for rural and light suburban areas, Mansfield said. "It will allow us to extend coverage with higher, broadband types of speeds."

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