Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
September 11, 2006 Monday
By Paul Davidson
From Lexis Nexis
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 stoves.
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 skepticism.
“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 multi-billion-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 deploy it.
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.