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AT&T plans to offer super-fast internet using power lines

Project AirGig is a novel approach to deliver connectivity. AT&T plans to hold trials next year.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
2 min read

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AT&T's Project AirGig would attach antennas onto power lines to send data signals around the wires, instead of through them.

Courtesy of AT&T

Internet access could soon be synonymous with electricity in AT&T's latest project.

The Dallas telecommunications giant on Tuesday revealed Project AirGig, which aims to deliver "low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds" using power lines. AT&T Labs is hoping to launch its first field trials sometime next year.

Unlike the broadband through power lines efforts of more than a decade ago from tech heavyweights like Google and IBM, AT&T's project looks to deliver high-speed internet around power lines, not through them.

The technology could widen the potential reach of AT&T, empowering the company to deliver service in rural areas outside of its geographic territory and even overseas. That means more people could get access to the super-fast internet necessary for streaming 4K video on Netflix or chatting via FaceTime.

Project AirGig will take plastic antennas that deliver data signals and stick them on already existing power lines, which will create an electromagnetic field to guide the signals across the wires. The project takes advantage of the prevalence of power lines in the US, with 200,000 miles of high-voltage lines and nearly 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines.

"It's easier to deploy than fiber, and can deliver ultra-fast wireless connectivity," John Donovan, AT&T's chief strategy officer, said during a conference call Tuesday.

Broadband over power line connections in the past had limited speeds because of its delivery method, as well as technical difficulties like interfering with emergency radios, making the service more trouble than it was worth.

"It made it not that cost-effective," said AT&T Chief Technology Officer Andre Fuetsch. "It couldn't get the speed out of that technology that we're seeing today,"

Donovan described the project as "low-cost" by using inexpensive plastic antennas, but did not provide an exact figure.

With the nation covered in power lines, AirGig has a distinct advantage over fiber-optic cable and cell phone towers, which can be costly to install.

AT&T is hoping to roll out AirGig to select cities and countries by next year, after successful lab tests. The company will be targeting rural and global areas, regions that are typically cut off from internet access because of their remoteness.

The company is aiming for a minimum LTE speed -- think the kind of connection you get with the latest phone -- with AirGig. Those speeds could power homes and virtual reality.

"Our researchers are addressing the challenges that hampered similar approaches a decade ago, such as megabit-per-second speeds and high deployment costs," Donovan said in a statement. "Project AirGig is still very much in the experimentation phase."