In an era of wireless delivery, buried cables, and hidden wiring, power lines seem like a relic from the past.
While visually they may seem a reminder of different times, in reality they still blanket the nation delivering electricity. Because power lines are so ubiquitous and service most populated parts of the country, AT&T (NYSE:T) wants to use them to deliver low-cost, multi-gigabit wireless internet.
Called Project AirGig, the new effort, which is only in the testing phase, would allow the company to use the existing infrastructure to deliver wireless internet. The data would not be sent over the power lines, instead it uses "the area around or near the lines to carry data wirelessly to new, low-cost plastic antennae that rest on the utility poles," Consumerist reported.
AT&T has been testing the technology at its own outdoor facilities to positive results, and the company plans field trials in 2017.
"Project AirGig has tremendous potential to transform internet access globally – well beyond our current broadband footprint and not just in the United States," said AT&T's Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan in a press release. "The results we've seen from our outdoor labs testing have been encouraging, especially as you think about where we're heading in a 5G world. To that end, we're looking at the right global location to trial this new technology next year."
What does this mean for consumers?
The sheer amount of power lines blanketing the nation would allow AT&T to easily bring high-speed wireless internet to rural areas which are currently under-served. It's also worth noting that, according to AT&T, this type of wireless internet does not require spectrum licenses.
The company made it clear in its press release that it has made a lot of progress, but it's not ready to launch the technology.
"There's no direct electrical connection to the power line required and it has the potential of multi-gigabit speeds in urban, rural and underserved parts of the world," the company wrote. "Project AirGig delivers this last-mile access without any new fiber-to-the-home and it is flexible enough to be configured with small cells or distributed antenna systems. No need to build new towers. No need to bury new cables in the ground."
That's a potentially game-changing technology that could make it much easier and cheaper to bring high-speed internet to people who don't have it. It's also a potential alternative source for internet access in already-served markets which could force prices lower.
When will this happen?
"We believe Project AirGig has the potential to quickly bring connectivity to all parts of the world," said Donovan. "Our researchers are addressing the challenges that hampered similar approaches a decade ago, such as megabit per second speeds and high deployment costs."
That's a highly optimistic statement which makes it sound like the company is getting ready to roll out the technology. That's clearly not true if field tests don't begin until next year. Donovan completed his remarks by dialing back short-term expectations at least a little bit.
"Project AirGig is still very much in the experimentation phase," he said. "That said, I'm excited about what AT&T Labs' engineers have developed to date. Our overall access approach, in conjunction with our software-defined network architecture, is unmatched in its ability to usher in connected experiences like augmented reality, virtual reality, self-driving cars, telemedicine and 4K mobile video. Big urban city. Small rural town. Around the world."
So while consumers should not expect Project AirGig to start delivering them internet in the near-term, the existence of the technology could ultimately do that. It may also encourage other companies working on non-wired internet access delivery to push up their plans to gain a first-to-market advantage.