America’s second largest carrier, AT&T, has released an informative blog post discussing some of their latest developments in the mobile broadband market place. Chief among these is “Project AirGig,” which is a patented broadband-over-power line (BPL) technology. AT&T are to test Project AirGig in the U.S. and at least one other location by the fall and are in discussions with utility power companies. These tests follow demonstrations of AirGig technology at the carrier’s outdoor facility, which the company says has directly led to other developments such as their Radio Distributed Antenna System, or RDAS. AT&T has big plans for their AirGig technology as Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer, explains: “We are looking forward to begin testing the possibilities of AT&T Labs’ invention for customers and utility companies. AT&T is focused on delivering a gigabit-per-second speed everywhere we can with our wired and wireless technologies.” AT&T’s Project AirGig is billed as one of their core inventions on the road to rolling out their 5G networks. The carrier believes AirGig “has the potential to deliver benefits to utility companies and bring this multi-gigabit, low-cost internet connectivity anywhere there are power lines.” This means as electricity is ubiquitous in developed markets, and is being deployed into developing markets, so AT&T’s technology could be used almost anywhere there are electricity poles.
AT&T’s blog post details how the carrier’s engineers have been working on BPL technology for over a decade. Early generation BPL worked well but was unable to keep up with advances in Internet speeds. The carrier came up with a new idea: combining mmWave and power lines, which had not yet been tried in the industry. Over the last ten years or so, AT&T acquired over two hundred patents or patent applications and the engineers have invented a number of new technologies, such as inexpensive plastic antennas, the above-mentioned Radio Distributed Antenna System, mmWave surface wave launchers and inductive power devices. Early experiments into new generation BPL using mmWaves meant the engineers constructing directional antennas using funnels covered in tinfoil bought from local auto parts stores, and although crude, the technology worked very well. Through experimentation and refinement, today the technology can be used to carry broadband and mobile signals at multi-gigabit speeds, via a directional signal that travels along (or close to) a power line rather than through it. AT&T write that there are many advantages to this technology: there is no need to build new towers or dig up streets to lay cable, as existing power line infrastructure is used.
The trials set for the fall will include supporting utility power companies’ smart technologies (including appliance, meter and usage control systems), powerline integrity issue detection systems, and seeing how robust and reliable the mmWave technology is in adverse weather conditions such as heavy rain, snow and high wind. AT&T will also be assessing the cost of using the technology whilst maintaining a good quality signal for customers. There’s an embedded YouTube video clip at the bottom of the article giving a quick and simple demonstration of how AT&T envisions BPL technology working, together with a visualization of how the BPL technology antennas could look.
AT&T also explained how they're continuing to expand their fixed line Internet service and in 2017 can offer a 1 gigabit connection to all customers on a 100% fiber network across 46 cities, and four million locations. Customers can pick between a range of speed plans and almost one third subscribe to AT&T Internet 1000. Of course, customers need something to use all of this bandwidth and here AT&T provide “an integrated communications and entertainment experience,” which includes home Internet, television, phone and mobile services from one provider. The carrier also discussed how it had started to roll out a Centralized RAN (or C-RAN) network in San Francisco. This network technology involves densifying the cellular network with a fleet of small cells mounted on light posts and urban furniture with a centralized point of control. This represents the latest way that AT&T is switching to network virtualization and software-defined networking, which also allows AT&T to easily and quickly modify the behavior of the network.
Finally, AT&T explained that it had already started a trial of a Fixed Wireless Internet service, or FWI, across several states typically in rural areas in order to expand high speed Internet connectivity. The carrier has plans to expand FWI access to over 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 and on to 1.1 million by the end of 2020, as part of the company’s involvement with the FCC’s “Connect America Fund.”