- AT&T’s announcement of Project AirGig in 2016 was a compelling and novel way to think about providing high-speed broadband services.
- Following a press conference and tease of a 2021 release in 2018, AT&T has gone silent on the project, prompting questions about its future.
During the mid-2000’s, broadband over power line (BPL) technology (using power lines to simultaneously transmit data signals) was an exciting topic in the telecommunications industry. The hope was the technology could deliver speeds equivalent or greater than ADSL and provide a cheap and effective means of connecting rural communities and improving broadband infrastructure in brownfield areas without the need to lay new fiber. The IEEE developed standards, and various governments, carriers, and even utilities launched trials and services. While the technology caught on for some utilities as a means to monitor the health of their own grids, most if not all commercial attempts to develop a consumer access product failed. Failures were blamed on a few factors, including radio interference easily impacting unshielded power lines, complications managing right-of-way access with utilities, and slower than predicted data rates. Today, BPL for consumer access is all but dead; however, at the end of 2016, AT&T announced a new project, ‘AirGig,’ with a lot of similarities.
AirGig is distinct from BPL in that AT&T’s plan is not to transmit data through the power lines; rather, it hopes to create a network of tiny antennae, transceiver, and modem units that literally sit on top of existing power line infrastructure. This network would leverage both licensed and unlicensed spectrum in the U.S.’s mmWave band to simultaneously create a backhaul network through beamforming between unit nodes on top of power lines as well as an access network by transmitting signals to nearby receivers on homes and businesses. The system would be run on induction power after clipping on to the power lines. AT&T is calling this new type of network a ‘radio distributed antenna system’’ (RDAS). AT&T already has several use cases envisioned for the technology, explicitly outlining the following:
- The creation of a last-mile transmission network for broadband services – Using mmWave antennae in each AirGig node and receivers at customer premises, AT&T hopes to provide high-speed broadband.
- The creation of a backhaul network for fixed/mobile/AirGig network – Via a network of AirGig nodes that connect to cell towers and exchanges, AT&T also hopes to use the network to alleviate congestion on fiber backhaul routes.
- Provision of Smart Grid services to partnering utility companies – Similar to the use of BPL for utility grid monitoring, AT&T hopes to create ‘smart grid’ services for its utility company partners like meter reading, usage control, and grid disruption/damage detection.
Where Are You, AirGig?
Following the project’s launch in late 2016, AT&T conducted live trials in several rural towns in Georgia in 2017. The trials were a relative success according to AT&T, claiming no loss of transmission in the case of inclement weather and easy self-setup of signal receivers in customer homes. Furthermore, AT&T has claimed 500 patents towards the project, including the development of low-cost, plastic-based antennae and transceiver units. So, after a press release in 2018 claiming the potential for a commercial deployment in 2021, why has AT&T gone silent on this project?
One reason could be the lack of a viable commercial model. Many homes in suburban and urban areas are already covered by either a high-speed fixed broadband network or a mobile network, and with the advent of 5G, the promises of gigabit speeds over mobile are growing closer. Even in rural communities where the best option is FWA, carriers (including AT&T) are hoping 5G and LTE can improve the broadband experience.
For the potential of smart grid, the solution would have to compete with pre-existing IoT ecosystems that have been developing for the past decade and a half. While the AirGig network is a novel concept for delivering a service to consumers, utilities, and carriers at once, the smart grid industry has not evolved in a vacuum and AT&T would need to work with device vendors, utilities regulators, and more to develop a solution. Furthermore, while AT&T has the benefit of being a utility provider itself in many regions across the U.S., it could become complicated for the company to navigate right of way in areas where it does not have its own poles.
The most compelling use case may be leveraging AirGig for backhaul. Due to the nature of spectrum bands utilized for 5G services, mobile networks are expected to increase in the density of cell sites; moreover, the larger capacity is expected to increase traffic, complicating the task of providing mobile backhaul. Traditionally, microwave antennae or fiber cables are used for mobile backhaul, both expensive propositions. If AirGig can perform as well as AT&T claims, it could be incredibly useful for providing backhaul services in congested urban areas, where operators are already deploying more complex webs of small cells to support 5G services.
Ultimately, only AT&T currently knows the status of AirGig and if there will be an eventual commercial deployment. Perhaps the key will come from a complex commercial model that sees all three use cases supporting the cost of deployment and operations. Hopefully this promising technology’s similarities to BPL of the mid-aughts are only surface deep and AirGig can see the light of day.