The next chapter in gigabit wifi everywhere?

The race to expand Wifi to reach gigabit capabilities around the world has been focused on solutions under development from Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies. However, it may ultimately end up falling to traditional telecom companies to scale the dream of nationwide Gigabit wifi.

The Valley’s Current Projects

Silicon Valley’s projects in wireless connection research have been focused on two goals: increase service speeds, and expand service to under-served areas.

A Project Loon Research Balloon (Doug Caldwell, 2013, unchanged, Creative Commons License)

Perhaps the most visible of these efforts has been Google fiber. Since 2010, fiber has sought to install new, citywide systems of fiber optic cabling to hit gigabit speeds. Facebook has launched Terragraph, a wireless system using a 60 Hz bandwidth for dense urban areas, and Project ARIES, an antenna array designed to maximize efficient usage of radio spectrum. Perhaps the most eccentric of these efforts has been X’s (formerly Google X) Project Loon — where high stratosphere balloons carry tranceivers to provide internet for rural areas.

In October 2016, following the restructuring of Google as Alphabet, expansion of fiber has been paused in several future cities and then-CEO Craig Barratt has decided to step aside. While the pause on fiber expansion was put up to “refine our approaches”, the move was seen as a belt-tightening measure in the wake of no longer being hidden behind the financial reporting umbrella of Google. Considering how costly it is to establish and maintain a fiber optic company, some analysts have suggested that the founding of fiber was meant to push existing ISPs to hasten their own plans to install gigabit fiber nationwide. In the end, Google (now Alphabet) is foremost a content provider and therefore is beneficiary of faster internet speeds — regardless of who actually provides it.

Incidentally, the Google fiber announcement came one month after another announcement: that AT&T would be beginning field tests in 2017 of a new system known as AirGig that would provide gigabit wireless at a low cost.

In short, the announcement claims that AirGig utilizes existing power lines to guide the deployment of a multi-gigabit wireless network. By using existing power lines to guide deployment, AT&T will be able to cut the cost of constructing an entirely new set of towers. Furthermore, by relying on a mesh network of wireless nodes using high-frequency (>50 Hz, similar to Facebook’s Project ARIES) unlicensed spectrum to maximize speeds.

AirGig remains in experimentation phase, and the early estimate for widespread deployment is 2020. However, Google Fiber has also been looking to expand wireless, high-frequency networks with the purchase of the startup Webpass. The Webpass product shares some similarities in design with both AirGig and Terragraph, and Google fiber has suggested that expanding Webpass might be the new, more cost-effective direction it intends to go.

It remains to be seen what the future is for ISP government regulations regarding spectrum control, fiber deployment, and installation permitting for these new technologies.

Note: Edits and Images added Feb 28

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