AT&T struggles with AirGig utility negotiations, Nokia chases smart grid

Utilities will become increasingly strategic, if unfamiliar, partners for MNOs as they start to densify their 4G and, in future, 5G networks, and require far larger numbers of fiber links for backhaul and fronthaul. That need will be further intensified as many mobile-only operators move into TV and home broadband offerings, and full quad plays, while the TV companies and ISPs begin diversifying into their own cellular offerings.

The power utility companies are one route for operators to gain physical access to pre-existing infrastructure that might accommodate the wiring for backhaul. With ducting and pole infrastructure in urban centers and rural communities, wherever there are buildings, there are going to be opportunities for this MNO and utility networking partnership model.  This is why AT&T’s patented AirGig distributed radio technology will be closely watched by operators in many markets.

However, the utilities are facing their own transitional crisis. IoT-enabled smart grid technologies are proving essential to managing modern utility grids, both in terms of uptime and operational efficiencies. Leaks and outages can be spotted and corrected more quickly, thanks to sensors deployed on or in remote infrastructure, and when extreme weather and accidents cause electrical outages, utilities are able to restore services more quickly via remote equipment interaction, rather than having to send engineers to reconfigure distribution equipment.

The other great driver for utilities is smart metering, a practice that is seeing increased government support globally. While the obvious truck-roll savings from remote metering are beneficial, a greater advantage of this Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technology is the creation of vast amounts of data that can be used to influence energy purchasing decisions, as well as operational and investment questions.

All of the AMI devices are going to need some form of network connectivity, and all the grid-side infrastructure represents another opportunity for MNOs to branch out and expand their portfolios. Offering SLAs (service level agreements) for keeping that critical infrastructure online looks like a lucrative avenue for these MNOs, especially as utilities get to grip with accommodating increased amounts of renewables into their generation portfolios – which require smart grid tech to coordinate and store their output.

Which brings us to AT&T’s recent announcement that its Project AirGig initiative is in “advanced discussions” with utilities. AirGig is an attempt to provide gigabit broadband via power lines, and so AT&T needs the utilities on-board in order to share the lines, to provide broadband for its own backhaul and customer broadband access via the lines.

While all that seems to have changed in the past few months is that the talks have moved from being preliminary to advanced, negotiating revenue sharing and access contracts with utilities is almost certainly going to remain a long, drawn-out process until AT&T has a benchmark case study it can point to.

In terms of network infrastructure, AT&T plans to install units on top of the above-ground electricity poles that will act as network repeaters for the wireline communication (essentially the backhaul) and LTE access points for nearby users – with homes, pedestrians, and vehicles appearing in the promotional materials.

AT&T says it has been working on the broadband over power lines (BPL) technology for a decade, but that recent advances in millimeter wave tech have allowed it to scale from megabit speeds to reach the multi-gigabit levels it needs to make the offering work. Now claiming over 200 patents related to AirGig, AT&T’s purchase of FiberTower and its millimeter wave spectrum rights might also prove central to its plans for BPL LTE network expansion (see separate item).

AirGig relies on a plastic antenna which can be installed on power lines, where a more or less, unobstructed line of sight can be guaranteed, without trees or buildings getting in the way of millimeter wave signals. The antennas don’t have to be precisely aligned, but can be just roughly in line with each other to manage the 10Gbps backhaul hops along a power line. AT&T calls this patented system Radio Distributed Antenna Systems.

It would not be practical for AT&T actually to install the antennas on the powerlines, but utilities have the workforce in place trained in dealing with mid-voltage lines. This is a way of offloading some of that workforce’s cost onto a new revenue stream. In that sense, it is a win-win.

“We are looking forward to begin testing the possibilities of AT&T Labs’ invention for customers and utility companies,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer. “AT&T is focused on delivering a gigabit-per-second speed everywhere we can with our wired and wireless technologies.

The great advantage that AirGig has is that it requires no separate power connection, instead using induced power from the utility lines, which leads us to believe that the utility will bill for the service on a usage basis, not charging for power as such, but for a complete service, measured in bandwidth delivery.

In return for all this, AT&T has promised it will work on smart grid technologies, so that it can carry meter data and smart meter control information along the same network, killing two birds with one stone and providing a network for IoT smart energy systems.

But the negotiations with the utilities will prove the biggest stumbling block for AT&T, and other MNOs should AT&T choose to license its tech to other companies. In terms of network densification, it looks like power distribution is too good an opportunity to pass up for MNOs, but to date, AT&T has little to show for its effort and will be hoping to change that.

Elsewhere in cellular, Nokia has used the DistribuTech show to unveil its latest utility offering – the 7705 SAR-Hm ((Service Aggregation Router-HM), which it is pitching at utilities looking to blend IP/MPLS tech with LTE, 3G, and WiFi connectivity. Citing AMI, renewable integration, and distribution automation, Nokia is hunting for smart grid customers. This is the box that Nokia hopes utilities will use to provide the networking links to their grids, as well as tempt other industrial markets that are looking for remote connectivity options.

“Power utilities worldwide are in the midst of a significant transformation as they gear up to meet new market forces, green environmental regulations, and disruptive renewable energy technologies,” said Sri Reddy, Nokia’s head of IP Routing and Packet Core Business. “Grid reliability, power quality, and automation are all key areas that will require improved field area networks.”

Currently, Nokia claims to have over a hundred utility customers on the books, but hasn’t announced any customers for the new 7705. AT&T is quoted in the release, saying it is happy to be teaming up with Nokia to provide US utilities with a private LTE solution – pitching the security benefits of a private LTE network to customers that might be uneasy with their traffic being managed over public networks.

In terms of rival implementations, technologies like Wi-SUN and Wirepas aim to provide the wireless communication backbone that utilities and energy OEMs need to modernize their grids – in private networks that don’t need to involve the MNOs. Private networks still have a strong appeal to utilities and industrial customers, and MNOs, in general, are much better versed in public WANs.