Earlier this month, AT&T disclosed plans to field-test AirGig, a technology that rides along medium-voltage power lines to deliver broadband via plastic antenna and millimeter waves. The service -- which should be economically attractive to rural and under-served markets -- leverages power companies' existing staff, thereby reducing labor costs, installation time and the bureaucracy that may accompany fiber to the home (FTTH) deployments.
From AirGig to Small Cells
AT&T continues to expand fiber deployments, while also investing in new technologies like AirGig,
says Andre Fuetsch of AT&T.
UBB2020 Editor Alison Diana chatted recently with Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs , about the company's array of broadband options, including AirGig. For space reasons, we've split the interview into two parts. In part one, Fuetsch discusses
AT&T's future plans for AirGig, the technology's benefits, opportunities and competition. In the second part, he'll share insight into other AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) initiatives like FTTH, G.fast and small cells.
UBB2020: AT&T has been busy in broadband recently. Could you give us a thumbnail of some recent activities, and then we can drill down a little?
Andre Fuetsch: There's really several dimensions here in terms of our approach to broadband, both from the fixed and from a mobile context. First of all, we're doing a lot of work here in the 5G space, a lot of trials here to get ready for 5G and as you know the standards aren't quite set for this but that's not stopping us from getting out ahead of everyone else and making sure we understand the technology. Most important, from what we're learning from our trials out there, is making sure that feedback goes back into the standards process. That will ensure once the standards are ratified, the equipment makers out there in the supply chain can really build to some global scale and that volume will really bring the right economics. Anything that folks are doing that is non-standard, proprietary, we think is going to be challenging to really provide the economics.
In terms of some of the trials we've been able to demonstrate multi-gigabit speed; we've released up to 14 gigabits. We have a trial coming up here that we're going to trial in Austin -- our DirecTV now service -- again, this is all 5G. So it's more than just proving up the speed and technology, but also the experience. It's no surprise that content is a really important part of our value for our customers.
We've also been public about our radical new technology -- Project AirGig -- and AirGig is a revolutionary new way to deliver multi-gigabit throughput at really low economics. I'm really excited about that. We're going to take this technology out of the labs and implement some trials this year, working with power utility companies as we speak to get these trials started. This isn't the traditional broadband-over-power lines technology. That technology, the transmission path is through the conductor path, the actual wire. With this technology we actually have some different variants of it, but it actually rides outside of the wire. In some modes it rides along the wire -- picture it like a donut -- and another variance is several inches or even a foot or two above the wire. We see this as a new, very economical way to avoid having to physically string fiber and other infrastructure to serve, typically, rural locations or under-served locations. This is a far more effective way to do it.
UBB2020: Will those trials -- which I believe are scheduled for fall 2017 -- be in the United States or elsewhere in the world?
Fuetsch: Certainly in the United States is where we're focused first, but I would say there is some opportunity globally as well that we're looking at. This technology, what's great about it, is it really takes advantage of what is probably the most reliable, secure infrastructures out there, which is the power grid. Certainly power grids aren't going anywhere, as more and more electronics become part of our lives. The fact is we can piggyback onto this infrastructure and serve rural areas but also serve suburban neighborhoods. Using this technology we can employ a lot of proven network techniques around survivability and reliability, so we can deploy these nodes in a mesh-like architecture so if, say, a tree were to fall or we had some kind of failure you could route around or have self-healing rings, as an example. You can also serve homes from multiple nodes, so there's a lot of survivability built into this system.
UBB2020: Interesting how this technology has learned so much from traditional networking. Why is AirGig low cost?
Fuetsch: You don't have to dig up streets. When you look at the economics of networks, labor is one of the largest -- if not the largest -- cost of deployment. Certainly the equipment is a factor, but typically in building a network it's labor. By leveraging an infrastructure that's already there, where the electronics involved here don't have to be wired up -- they can just sit on top of the wire and can be inductively powered, much like a wirelessly powered set for your smartphone. The other aspect, and why we're working with power utilities, is these can be safely deployed by technicians that are already certified with the appropriate safety training today. It's not like you have to learn a whole new technology or new way to do things. This takes advantage of operations and methodologies that are already out there.
That's part of the reason we're doing the trials. We want to prove all that out and see how this works, and also prove out the technology in real-life conditions. What happens when trees fall? What happens when birds land on these things? All these real-world aspects, we want to see how it performs.
UBB2020: What type of competition would AirGig face?
Fuetsch: Well, competition would be macro cell sites, small cell sites. Those are where we put small-cell radios and antennas on light poles, for example, or the sides of buildings. These are typically lower elevation mounted antenna. This is technology we're already deploying today. A lot of this isn't so much the cost is in the electronics but it's in the labor and where these devices attach. We don't get to attach our small cells to light poles for free. The local cities usually have a say in that and we don't get that for free; we have to pay for that. This gives us some optionality. This AirGig technology also is very attractive to power utility companies because now they have a technology that's riding along their power wires that can alert them to problems such as a tree limbs getting too close to a wire, they need to send a trimmer out to cut a tree, or a wire is sagging more than it should and maybe some proactive maintenance is needed. It's one of those one plus one equals three technologies, when you consider what the power utility companies go through.
UBB2020: So in terms of remuneration, would AT&T pay a power company, would it be a partnership between the two companies or, given the sensor capability, would there some sort of partnership with recognition financially of the benefit power companies receive?
Fuetsch: You're asking exactly the right questions and those are the ones we're working through right now. That's why we're starting these relationships up and these trials. What is the right compensation model, if you will, the joint maintenance model that would be most appropriate, keeping in mind a lot of the labor we use out in the field is organized labor it's just similar to how power utilities are situated at well. We're looking at all those various dimensions: How do we provide the best possible service with all these different variables and aspects in terms of how you operate and maintain, build and deploy the service.
UBB2020: It sounds as though one size will not fit all...
Fuetsch: That's going to be part of the learning experience for us. It's not like there's one consistent power utility across the United States. There are many of them. The good news is the way power is distributed across North America, the standards, the technologies, are fairly consistent. It's not like in one state you have different sized power poles, in another state different gauges of wires. There's a lot of consistency, a lot of standards. All of that lends itself to what we believe are very favorable economics.
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.