broadband fibre

Fibre-optic cables could be carried through UK water pipes

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A trial project will explore whether laying fibre-optic broadband cables through the UK’s water infrastructure could help connect hard-to-reach homes without the cost and disruption of digging up roads.

The £4m trial will examine whether passing cables through water pipes could improve connectivity for homes, businesses and mobile masts. Digging for cable laying is an expensive and disruptive process; civil works such as installing new ducts and poles can comprise up to four-fifths of the cost of building new gigabit-capable broadband networks.

Fibre cable has been deployed in the water pipes of other countries, such as Spain, and broadband providers are already using existing infrastructure in England to lay cable, including electricity poles. If the project is successful, broadband firms could gain access to more than one million kilometres of underground utility ducts – not just water, but also electricity, gas and sewage – to help their rollout of gigabit-speed broadband.

“The cost of digging up roads and land is the biggest obstacle telecoms companies face when connecting hard-to-reach areas to better broadband,” said digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman. “Beneath our feet there is a vast network of pipes reaching virtually every building in the country.

“We are calling on Britain’s brilliant innovators to help us use this infrastructure to serve a dual purpose of serving up not just fresh and clean water, but also lightning-fast digital connectivity.”

Stephen Unger, commissioner at the Geospatial Commission, commented: “Fibre is the future of digital communications. Its unmatched performance and reliability can seamlessly connect our society together, but it took over a hundred years to build the legacy copper network so replacing it with fibre won’t be easy. The best way to meet this challenge is to use existing infrastructure, such as the water pipes that already reach every home and business in the country. Our ambition must be for reliable broadband to become as easy to access tomorrow as drinking water is today.”

Any scheme to use the pipes as part of the full-fibre broadband rollout must be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The project will consider regulatory barriers to the proposal – which may be considerable as both water and telecoms are both parts of the UK’s critical national infrastructure – as well as economic, technical, cultural and collaborative challenges.

The project will conclude in March 2024, with the final year dedicated to scaling proven solutions nationwide. It will be conducted alongside another trial scheme to examine putting sensors into water pipes to allow water companies to rapidly identify and repair leaks. According to a government statement, 20 per cent of the water put into the public supply is lost to leaks; water companies have committed to halving loss to leakage.

Meanwhile, gas companies are hoping to repurpose their extensive infrastructure to deliver hydrogen to homes safely. A coalition of the largest gas companies will invest £28bn by 2032 in replacing old iron gas mains with “hydrogen-ready” pipes. Projects such as Project Cavendish on Kent’s Isle of Grain will trial the connection of hydrogen production facilities to the existing gas network. However, following a review, the IET has warned that risks and uncertainties remain when repurposing the existing gas network for hydrogen delivery.

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