Gas pipe broadband?

Small San Diego start-up is developing technology that lets carriers deliver broadband services through natural-gas pipes.

Imagine accessing the Internet over the same pipe that provides you with natural gas for cooking.

It may sound nuts today, but a San Diego company called Nethercomm is developing a way to use ultra wideband wireless signals to transmit data at broadband speeds through natural-gas pipes. The company claims its technology will be able to offer 100 megabits per second to every home, which is more than enough to provide voice, video and high-speed Internet access.

Needless to say, there's a big caveat here: These claims have yet to be tested. Nethercomm has no working products and has not tried the technology in the field.

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What's new:
A San Diego start-up is developing a way to use ultra wideband wireless signals to transmit data at broadband speeds through natural-gas pipes.

Bottom line:
Some skeptics may scoff at the idea of a natural-gas pipe for broadband, but analysts say it could be much cheaper than technology available today.

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"When I first heard about it, it seemed pretty outrageous," said Joe Posewick, president of EN Engineering, an engineering firm that helps natural gas companies build distribution facilities. "But the more we talked to Nethercomm and other experts in the industry, the more we realized that it could be a viable technology that could revolutionize the natural-gas industry.

"Of course, we have to see if it really works," Posewick added. "There's been no proof of concept yet."

So how does broadband in gas pipes work? Nethercomm is adapting ultra wideband radio transmitters and receivers to send wireless signals through the natural-gas pipe at the same time the pipe is delivering gas fuel. Ultra wideband, or UWB, is a developing communication technology that delivers very high-speed network data rates, but at higher power levels it can interfere with other wireless signals.

That's not usually a problem when ultra wideband signals are transmitted in pipes buried underground. As a result, tremendous amounts of data could be transmitted through a gas line without causing problems.

At least, that's the idea. Nethercomm and the technology it's developing is still in the early days. The company hasn't yet announced any licensing deals with ultra wideband equipment makers. The 12-person company, which has no venture backing at the moment, is also trying to raise money to start a pilot program with broadband providers and gas companies by next summer.

Some skeptics may scoff at the idea of using a natural-gas pipe for broadband, but it's not so easy to dismiss the man behind the technology.

"It doesn't have the ubiquity of power line technology, but natural gas goes into a great number of homes. It's interesting."
--Kevin Brand, vice president of product management, EarthLink

Patrick Nunally, founder and CEO of Nethercomm and one of the inventors of gas line broadband, has a hefty track record. Until May 2005, he worked as chief technology officer for Patriot Scientific, a company that designs microprocessor technology for the U.S. Department of Defense. Prior to that, he was president and CEO of Intertech, a company he founded in 1998 that specialized in intellectual-property development for embedded processor and communications systems. He has also served as chief executive and chief technology officer for several other technology development companies.

Nunally holds more than 134 patents worldwide, predominantly in wireless and signal processing. He's been honored with awards from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and was named an IEEE/IAE (Institute for the Advancement of Engineers) fellow in 1994. He has even received a formal citation from former President Bill Clinton for his efforts in furthering technology development in the United States.

If transmitting broadband through natural-gas pipes works as Nethercomm's execs think it can, it could have a major impact on the broadband access market. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and changes in the Federal Communications Commission classification of DSL has made it more difficult for independent service providers to use existing cable or phone infrastructure to reach broadband customers.

What's more, the old copper infrastructure that is currently used to deliver DSL service doesn't have enough capacity to support new applications like high-definition television service. While phone companies like SBC Communications and Verizon Communications have already begun spending billions of dollars to upgrade their networks to provide more capacity, technology that uses existing pipes into people's homes could augment these new networks. "The cable guys view us as a threat," Nunally said. "But the phone companies that we have talked to seem more interested in working with us."

Internet service providers and the phone companies, in fact, have been looking for alternative ways to deliver broadband services to customers. EarthLink has been busy exploring new technologies such as broadband over power lines and citywide Wi-Fi. Back in October, it announced a contract to build a wireless broadband network for the city of Philadelphia.

A chicken-and-egg problem
It has also been testing ways to use electrical power lines to deliver broadband service into homes. It's currently testing services with Duke Power in Charlotte, N.C., Progress Energy in Raleigh, N.C., and Consolidated Edison in New York. Google is also looking into citywide Wi-Fi in San Francisco, and it's invested in a a broadband-over-power-line service provider called Current Communications Group.

Other carriers, such as BellSouth, have started offering services that use prestandard WiMax technology. It now offers service in Athens, Ga., Palatka, Fla., and parts of New Orleans.

There are technical limitations to each of these technologies. For example, broadband on power lines has interference issues. Citywide Wi-Fi and WiMax don't offer the kinds of bandwidth needed to deliver high-capacity applications like high-definition television. WiMax supports data speeds of 75mbps, but that capacity is shared among dozens of users. BellSouth's service in New Orleans only offers 1.5mbps.

Natural-gas piping could be a good solution to the problem. It already serves more than 70 percent of households and well over 35 percent of businesses in the United States, according to West Technology Research Solutions, an independent market research firm. Because the lines are underground, more powerful transmitters can be used, which ramps up bandwidth to 100mbps for every household.

Delivering broadband through gas pipes could be much cheaper than technology available today, according to a recent study by West Technology Research Solutions. The analyst firm estimates it would cost a phone company about $500 per customer to deploy broadband in gas pipes. Deploying DSL over its existing copper infrastructure costs about $1,000 per customer. Fiber to the home is even more expensive, costing about $2,000 per customer.

Nunally estimates a deployment for a city of a million homes would cost $2 million.

"If a comparable service can be delivered cheaper through natural-gas pipes, then that is a big factor," said George West, senior analyst at West Technology.

While most analysts are not sold on the technology just yet, many believe it sounds plausible.

"In theory it could work," said Craig Mathias, a principal analyst at Farpoint Group, a consultancy specializing in wireless and mobile technologies. "Ultra wideband technology is pretty tolerant. But I'm not sure how well it could work within all the twists and turns inside a natural-gas pipe."

At least one ISP says it's interested in learning more about broadband in gas pipes.

"We are just starting to look into it," said Kevin Brand, vice president of product management for EarthLink. "We still need to see how real the technology is, whether it will really work, and how much it will cost to deploy. It doesn't have the ubiquity of power line technology, but natural gas goes into a great number of homes. It's interesting."

West predicts that 3.9 million households will subscribe to broadband services delivered through gas pipes by 2008. And by 2010, he predicts that number will grow to 18.6 million subscribers.

That is, if someone has the guts to test it.

"Utilities are conservative by nature," said EN Engineering's Posewick. "There's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. You need to prove to them that the technology works, but to know if it works, we need someone who can help test it."

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