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

Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 3:40:28 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas' Why wouldn't Mr. Nunally talk to us? We even called him at home. We're very hurt. -M
Mark Sullivan 12/5/2012 | 3:40:26 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas' Nethercomm CEO Patrick Nunally called today. In fairness, his take on the issue should be noted here.

Nunally says the idea that broadband-in-gas won't work in plastic pipes is utterly false, a non-issue.

Nunally does confirm that the gas companies have yet to invest in the technology. Nethercomm is still a company of 12, surviving on private funds.

Nunally says his company is funding independent research that proves broadband-in-gas will work.

He points out that the broadband-over-power lines idea, which now appears to be getting its legs, depended on independent research to become a proven technology. Nunally says broadband-in-gas will require the same.

He also says his company has a funding round coming up. LR will follow the progress of Nethercomm as it seeks acceptance from the US gas industry. -M
jayavenu 12/5/2012 | 3:40:24 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas' Would not the shielding properites of plastic be practically non existent as compared to metal?
Would that not sffect S/N Ratio and consequently the reported 41 Mbps bidrectional throughput?
rjmcmahon 12/5/2012 | 3:40:23 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas' If the gas industry were serious about broadband they would use their revenue streams to cross subsidize fiber overbuilds. But this would be a distraction and probably wouldn't pass regulatory oversight. Also, from what Greenspan says, they need to be raising capital to build LNG terminals.
American Indian 12/5/2012 | 3:40:22 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas'
41 megabits -- GPON is delivering 100 meg today; who cares about 41 megs of capacity.

Sort of like oil, the price of broadband needs to get very high for anyone to care.
Mark van der Hoek 12/5/2012 | 3:40:10 AM
re: Utilities Balk at 'Broadband-in-Gas' And there is fiber running to... how many homes? And the cost of running fiber compared to using EXISTING gas lines is, what?

The whole point of a technology like this (or BPL) is that it provides a high speed connection for almost ZERO cost in infrastructure.

42 meg may not be the fastest possible technology, but it's a lot faster than dial up. Why, who knows, it might even beat a DSL line or cable connection!

Of course, nobody pays for those, we know, because faster technologies exist, right?

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