In one of our recent blogs, we said that broadband innovation seems to be in the air. It could be in the water too! As part of a major overhaul to the UK’s digital infrastructure, the Government has put aside £4 million for an innovative project, that will see fibre optic cables run through water pipes.
Telecom companies, engineering companies and utility providers must submit their applications to carry out works by the 4th October 2021. Electricity and gas companies and maintenance companies for water and sewage networks had until the 4th September 2021 to respond to a consultation that proposed new regulations to coordinate contractors on the infrastructure. However, at this stage, the Government has made it clear that the project is still in a trial phase. The selected group will need to lay out proposals and carry out investigative works before the three-year project kicks off.
This will give the Government a chance to assess any regulatory, technical and logistical challenges involved and a chance for organisations such as the Drinking Water Inspectorate to review the proposals. Drinking water cannot be affected during any phase of the project.
The £4 million investment is a much smaller sum than the £5 billion of public funds pledged for the UK’s full-fibre future . The ambitious transformation of our digital infrastructure, one that Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to deliver in his election manifesto, is seemingly on track to miss its deadline in 2025.
Perhaps the Government will recuperate time lost to logistical difficulties in the final year of the project as the conglomerate of contractors involved and the Government will review how the project can be scaled across the country. By then, of course, efforts to replace the copper network [DM2] with FTTP by Openreach, its competitors and smaller altnets will be in full motion. Therefore, it is assumed at the time of writing that by 2024, at least 40-50% of UK households will have access to full-fibre broadband. The demand for a solution of using the water pipes to boost broadband will not be as widespread as it is now unless Openreach and co hit some significant setbacks in their campaign for full-fibre.
The move to test running fibre optic cables in water pipes could also save the Government substantial amounts of money. More than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts can be used to complement the full-fibre rollout. This would avoid digging up roads, installing new poles and new ducts, the logistical fallouts to local traffic and disruptions to local businesses and homes. Installation of new hardware accounts for 80% of the costs for the UK’s planned upgrade to full-fibre.
If the trials go well and the project can be scaled correctly, the Government will save lots of money as the need for countless manhours, materials and disruption to local economies will be avoided. What’s more, the £4 million will also be used to assist water companies in identifying and repairing leaks. The UK loses about one-fifth of public supplied water per day. New sensors installed alongside the fibre optic cables will be able to help water companies achieve their commitments of reducing water loss by 50%.
As well as potentially recuperating time and saving the Government money, the water pipe innovation may also provide a solution to any objections that locals may have. Disruptive works and the installation of new masts that are essential for gigabit broadband networks are often unwelcome by people living in local areas. This is especially true in rural areas. Where the only choice for people to have access to better broadband speeds is to move to more urban areas. Yet the Government is determined not to let small villages and towns slip out of the full-fibre net. Running full-fibre, gigabit broadband through water pipes that lead to rural properties would mitigate the effect of disruptive works and make installation of masts obsolete.
Around 96% of premises in the UK already have a choice to access superfast broadband with average speeds of up to 24Mbps, whereas full-fibre broadband is accessible to only 12%. The full-fibre transformation of our digital infrastructure coupled with the Government’s £5 billion Gigabit Project – with the aid of the water pipe innovation – should be able to achieve its objectives. After all, using the water mains provides a middle ground; not just in cost but in terms of mediation. This may very well avoid objections from locals who oppose masts dominating rural landscapes.
Of course, ever the optimists, we at Broadband Freedom hope everything goes smoothly and that everyone will have access to full-fibre. Notably, the Government has already trialled something similar in Bournemouth by putting full-fibre broadband cables in sewers. For some reason or another, the project was abandoned for the usual method of digging up roads and installing new poles. Then again, successes in Spain may have contributed to why the Government wants to try out this innovation once more.
Most homes in the UK are linked up to the mains water supply. Now that the Government has already tested the innovation on a smaller scale in Bournemouth and seen how Spain has overcome technicalities, some challenges have been foreseen ahead of the scheduled project’s start.
Chief amongst these problems is how fibre will get past emergency stop valves. Supposedly, preliminary testing has yielded some results. One commercial group tested out a system made up of pipes. Using standard techniques, fibre optic cables are blown into the pipes from ground level. The fibre would divert from the water mains at individual stopcocks or bypass stop valves in the street. The cables will run in newly ducted sub pipes for the last few feet into the property.
We always welcome new tech and innovations. That way we can provide our speedy, reliable and flexible broadband to all of our customers, no matter where they are in the country. Hopefully, the water pipe innovation won’t cause too many headaches and will feasibly yield some promising results during the trials.