Gas-line broadband a pipe dream?
Posted 9/10/2006 6:22 PM ET
BROADBAND BY GAS PIPE
How customers can get broadband access through natural gas pipelines,
according to Nethercomm:
1. Ultrawideband radio transceiver sends wireless signals through
natural gas pipe. The signals would not interfere with gas delivery or
present a risk of explosion.
2. Buried pipes are shielded from open-air broadcast interference. Pipes
can be metal or plastic; stronger signals are needed for plastic pipes.
3. The signals travel through the pipe at broadband speeds -- up to
6,000 megabits per second.
4. Transceiver takes signals from pipe, decodes the broadband Internet,
cable TV and phone content, and sends them to the converter box in the
home. Sources: West Technology Research Solutions, Nethercomm
NATURAL GAS MARKET SHARE
Natural gas market share:
U.S. total: 62%
Source: American Gas Association
By Paul Davidson, USA TODAY
So intense is the drive to deliver high-speed Internet service to
American homes that entrepreneurs have seemingly tapped every
conceivable pathway: fiber-optic cable, the air, even power lines.
Now the relentless pursuit for faster, cheaper broadband is leading to
perhaps the last unclaimed conduit to your house: natural gas pipes.
Nethercomm, a San Diego-area start-up, says it has developed technology
to send lightning-fast broadband and TV services via wireless signals
through the pipes that deliver the fuel used to heat homes and fire up
Gas pipes serve 62% of U.S. households, says the American Gas
Association. Broadband in Gas, or BIG, could give consumers a third
high-speed option at low costs and speeds that far surpass today's phone
and cable offerings. It also could bring fast Internet to unserved rural
areas. But, so far, the idea has been met with both excitement and
"It's been a Coke and Pepsi (battle) between cable and phone companies,"
says Nethercomm founder and CEO Patrick Nunally, 42, a veteran high-tech
entrepreneur. "We're in a position to come in and provide real competition."
More important, Nunally says, the pipes could be used by pay-TV
providers to compete with cable and satellite. In fact, he says,
Nethercomm and local gas companies would lease the wireless spectrum to
any provider for myriad services: cable giants seeking extra bandwidth
for their high-definition TV channels, phone companies looking to pare
their multibillion-dollar investments in fiber-optic cable, even
businesses such as medical providers with high-bandwidth needs.
Gas companies, besides earning revenue from leasing their pipes, could
use the broadband service to remotely monitor the integrity of their
lines and read gas meters.
"I think there is a general pulse of excitement" about the technology
among publicly owned gas companies, says Bob Beauregard of the American
Public Gas Association, which represents 650 gas providers serving 5
million rural customers.
Nunally says he hatched the idea in 2002 while searching for a new TV
and broadband artery to the home that didn't require digging up streets.
Around the same time, some California utilities were stringing fiber
cable through gas lines to offer broadband. But the process was expensive.
Nunally says he had a "light bulb on the head" moment: wireless.
Normally, the twists and turns of a gas pipe would cause wireless
signals to lose strength. But ultrawideband, a new unlicensed wireless
technology, sends out pulses of radio energy across such a wide swath of
frequencies that if some data packets are lost, others can easily make
it to the home.
Also, federal rules that limit the strength of ultrawideband signals
don't apply in underground pipes. So, Nunally says, power levels can be
boosted to provide each household bandwidth of up to 6 gigabits per
second, several times that of a cable provider. Yet power is low enough
so that signals can share the pipes with natural gas without starting a
fire, he says.
A similar initiative, broadband over electric lines, is further along,
with services offered in Manassas, Va., and Cincinnati and a rollout
planned for Dallas this year. But the electric companies don't offer TV
services and incur high costs to bend signals around transformers.
Broadband in Gas would require installation of an ultrawideband
transmitter that's linked to an Internet backbone or pay-TV facility at
a gas company's network hub. A receiver would be placed at a customer's
gas meter. Build-out costs are about $200 per household, Nethercomm
says. By contrast, broadband over power lines costs about $600 per
household, while phone and cable TV networks each cost well over $1,000
per home to build, says West Technology Research Solutions.
Broadband in Gas "really has the potential to accelerate adoption of
these technologies," says George West of West Technology.
Yet some say BIG is, well, a pipe dream. "It's really easy to make these
kinds of claims, but it's much harder to prove in practice," says
JupiterResearch analyst Joe Laszlo.
Nunally says the company, which has tested the service, plans field
trials next year in San Diego, Chicago and Atlanta. But officials of
Nicor Gas in Chicago and Atlanta Gas Light say they have no such plans.
"We're intrigued by the technology, but we never got that far in our
discussions," says Nicor spokeswoman Margi Schiemann.
Nunally says BIG could sharply cut costs for companies such as Verizon
Communications, which is spending $20 billion on fiber rollouts. Verizon
and Internet provider EarthLink say they have no immediate plans to
And Freescale Semiconductor, the ultrawideband company that was working
with Nethercomm, recently shifted course to focus on its handset
business. "It would be hard for anybody to say (BIG) doesn't have
tremendous potential," says Freescale's Jon Adams.
WISPA Wireless List: firstname.lastname@example.org