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AT&T on Tuesday unveiled Project AirGig, a new solution from AT&T Labs that has the potential to deliver super-fast wireless Internet via power lines.

AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan said during a media call the technology will utilize low-cost plastic antennas placed along power lines to transmit wireless signals at gigabit speeds anywhere the power lines run. The last mile will be filled in with small cells or distributed antenna systems, he said.

Though the system will run along them, Donovan said it will not tap into the lines themselves either for power or propagation. AT&T CTO and AT&T Labs President Andre Fuetsch indicated the technology will instead be guided to ride alongside the outside of the lines, while juice for the antennas could be supplied via inductive power.

“Project AirGig has tremendous potential to transform Internet access globally – well beyond our current broadband footprint and not just in the United States,” Donovan said in a prepared statement. “The results we’ve seen from our outdoor labs testing have been encouraging, especially as you think about where we’re heading in a 5G world.”

Donovan said the system will be able to use both licensed and unlicensed spectrum in both the low and high frequency bands, making it flexible enough to be used for 4G LTE, 5G or fixed wireless applications. The antennas will be able to function as both repeaters and distributors to provide both fronthaul and backhaul, Donovan said, but will be more effective as distributors due to the widespread nature of power lines.

The idea is to go beyond AT&T’s own footprint, but partnerships with local utility companies will obviously be necessary, Donovan said.

Donovan said the signal’s reach away from the power line will be determined by what frequency band is being used. The carrier would have the option to choose between 700 MHz spectrum for distance or millimeter wave spectrum in areas where faster speeds and more capacity are a priority.

The lack of a need to bury cables or erect towers will help speed deployment and keep costs low, Donovan said. The ubiquity of power lines will make the solution equally viable in both urban and rural environments, he said. Donovan called the invention a “leapfrog” over AT&T’s currently capabilities.

“We’re excited about this technology,” he said. “We feel it has the opportunity to give us some performance and economics that isn’t on the horizon right now.”

The technology is still in the early stages of development, but Donovan said AT&T is currently scoping out trial locations both in the U.S. and abroad. Fuetsch said AT&T is likely to gravitate to trial locations that offer a favorable regulatory environment.

Donovan said AT&T expects to kick off field trials of the technology sometime next year, with a cautious eye to commercial availability sometime around 2020.

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