How AT&T plans to deliver cheap, high-speed internet over power lines

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In a few years, when we're all hurtling down highways in our self-driving cars and wearing virtual reality goggles, we'll need more high speed internet options.

AT&T (T, Tech30) on Tuesday said it's planning ahead for our gigabyte-hungry future with a new technology that sends high speed internet over power lines.

Called Project AirGig, the experimental system places low-cost plastic antennas along existing power grids to deliver low-cost, multi-gigabyte internet. So far, the company has tested the system on its own campuses. It hopes to do a field test next year to see how feasible, fast and affordable it really is.

What makes the AirGig setup unique is how it uses existing infrastructure to keep costs low.

"You don't have to lay any fiber, you don't have to touch anything, other than get some of these devices up on the wires," said AT&T chief Strategy Officer John Donovan.

Related: MIT scientists think they can make your WiFi 10x faster

This is not the first time a tech company has tried to marry internet and power lines, called Broadband over Power Lines (BPL). Earlier attempts have failed due to lagging speeds and interference issues. AT&T's take is different because it doesn't send signals through the lines.

AirGig's inexpensive plastic devices aren't actually tapping into the power at all. Instead, their wireless signals hitch a ride along the outside of the medium voltage lines, "clinging" to the wire to speed along to their destination. It also keeps prices down by using license-free spectrum.

att airgig

The company said the coming demand for internet-gobbling technologies like video, virtual reality, telemedicine, and automated vehicles will require new internet options. Specifically, we'll need to "leapfrog" current tech to keep pace with consumption.

The company said the tech is still in the early phases, and that a public deployment wouldn't happen until 2019 or 2020 at the earliest.

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