Tech by VICE

AT&T Says It’s Invented ‘Transformative, Multi-Gigabit’ Broadband Mesh Nets

AT&T has likened a new technology it's testing to the invention of the laser or the transistor.

by Jason Koebler
Sep 20 2016, 8:59pm

Image: AT&T

We are constantly bombarded with news reports and press releases touting new research claiming that a scientist somewhere has managed to transmit data at insane speeds using lasers, or microwaves, or a new type of fiber optics. It's often hard to know how or if any of these technologies will actually enter our day-to-day lives, improve our internet connections, or get rid of our data caps.

I'm always skeptical of such claims, but Tuesday I got word that AT&T is proposing to build high-speed mesh networks using existing infrastructure, which sounds pretty brilliant assuming the technology works and the company decides to actually build it.

AT&T says that it has spent the last several years secretly creating a technology that can use existing power lines to create new "multi-gigabit speed" internet infrastructure. The lofty proposal: "Where there are power lines, there can be broadband."

Internet over power lines has been proposed before, but AT&T says that it's developed a "transformative" technology called "AirGig" that allows transmission of internet data that doesn't actually travel through power lines but travels wirelessly using radio waves that propagate alongside them. The company says it can use existing infrastructure to create gigantic mesh networks using lots of cheap plastic antennas that can send data both to each other and to existing devices.

AT&T's press officer called it "capital R research" and likened the research to the development of the laser or the transistor.

"Its performance characteristics are a leapfrog over today's ability of speed and capability. We're talking multi-gigabit, low cost. It's easier to deploy than fiber," John Donovan, AT&T's chief strategy officer, said on a press call. "We're looking for the right global location to trial the technology in the field in the upcoming year. It can be as deployable in a big urban city as it can be in a small town."

Donovan said the antennas on each power line can convert the radio signal into either standard 4G LTE signals or upcoming 5G signals that could be delivered to cell phones or directly into homes.

Big telecom companies are certainly not immune from hyping their own research, but I've got to say I haven't ever received an email from a telecom company quite like this. AT&T's press officer called it "capital R research" and likened the research to the development of the laser or the transistor.

Of course, just because AT&T is working on some cool technology doesn't necessarily mean we will ever see it, and it doesn't mean that internet is going to be cheaper for you anytime soon. It also doesn't mean data caps are going away tomorrow or anything like that.

If radio waves delivered alongside existing technology is indeed the next big step in internet infrastructure, AT&T has already secured more than 100 patents on AirGig, meaning that it's doing its darnedest to maintain economic control over it. Big telecom doesn't have a great track record when it comes to deploying internet in places where it's not guaranteed to make a big profit, and we don't have a great tradition of internet competition in this country in general.

Donovan suggested that it might be ready for commercial deployment toward the end of the decade. In any case, this is certainly a technology we're going to be keeping our eyes on over the next couple years, and if you're into the future of internet infrastructure, you probably should be too.