Cable Tech

Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas'

A Southern California company called Nethercomm came up with some nifty science for sending broadband signals over the last mile through natural gas lines, but U.S. gas companies aren't buying in.

With U.S. broadband prices still high relative to the rest of the world and the cable-telco duopoly still dominating the access network, alternate routes into the home are of great importance to equipment makers, investors, and consumers. Recent Supreme Court and FCC decisions have largely freed the cable and phone companies from sharing broadband facilities with competing providers. (See Supremes Sing Cable's Praises and FCC Zaps Broadband Carriage Regs.)

Gas pipes reach 62 percent of U.S. households, according to the American Gas Association.

Broadband-in-Gas (BiG), as Nethercomm calls it, might have given gas utilities a neat new revenue source -- without the need for drastic infrastructure rebuild. But the technology remains unproven, and gas companies are doubtful about its overall dependability.

Why? One word: plastic.

Several industry organizations, including the Gas Technology Organization of America, studied the BiG idea, and found that while broadband would probably travel nicely through metal pipes, it might not travel well through plastic ones.

The Chicago-based energy infrastructure engineering firm EN Engineering became interested in Broadband-in-Gas (BiG) in 2005 and tried to sell the Nethercomm idea to natural gas utilities all over the country. “To make a long story short, they didn’t believe it would work,” says EN Engineering VP of business development Phil Bottger.

Nethercomm now faces a conundrum. It badly needs research funding to prove a broadband signal will travel through plastic pipes, Bottger says. But while many of the utilities are willing to let Nethercomm use their gas lines to prove the BiG technology, none are optimistic enough to actually subsidize the research.

Here's how it works: Nethercomm says it has “repurposed” ultra-wideband (UWB) technology to transmit signal through the atmosphere inside the gas lines. There, the company says, the wireless noise level is very low and interference from outside is virtually non-existent. UWB is a new method of sending RF (radio frequency) signal over wide swaths of unlicensed wireless spectrum to achieve higher bandwidths.

Nethercomm says it can pump almost 41 Mbit/s of bandwidth (upstream and downstream) through gas lines without disturbing Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -regulated spectrum.

At ground level, an Internet backbone-connected UWB transceiver at the local gas office would send the broadband signal to another transceiver at the residential gas meter. That transceiver would serve the home network.

The main drawback to the new distribution method involves areas not served by natural gas, the company says.

Nethercomm says its patent portfolio protects the fundamental science behind conducting broadband signal through gas lines. The company says it also holds patents protecting the actual communications architecture needed.

The company had hoped to license its BiG intellectual property to gas companies wanting to rent their lines to communications providers offering broadband service. Nethercomm was also hoping to license the intellectual property to customer premises equipment (CPE) OEMs as BiG become more widely used by consumers.

The company’s founder and CEO, Patrick Nunally, founded Wave Interactive Networks (now Wave Systems Corp. ). Neither Nunally nor the company's public relations contact returned calls for comment Monday. EN’s Bottger says he hasn’t spoken to Nunally in six months.

Nethercomm is privately held and headquartered in Escondido, Calif.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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