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Gov to Trial Running UK Fibre Broadband Lines via Water Mains

Monday, August 9th, 2021 (12:01 am) - Score 5,928
Construction worker repairing a broken water pipe on the concrete road.

The UK Government (DCMS) has today unveiled a new £4m ‘Fibre in Water‘ project trial, which will experiment with connecting homes, businesses and mobile masts to gigabit-capable broadband in “hard-to-reach areas” (e.g. remote rural) by running Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) style lines through the water mains.

The trial is partly related to last year’s review of the existing Access to Infrastructure (ATI) Regulations 2016 (here), which sought to foster ways in which existing electricity, gas, water and sewage networks could be harnessed via infrastructure sharing in order to improve the spread of “full fibre” connectivity (the government’s response to that is due “soon“).

NOTE: The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) previously estimated that infrastructure re-use could lead to an £8bn cost saving for broadband builders.

At present, it’s already possible to do this via commercial infrastructure sharing agreements, but those can be restrictive and amending the current ATI rules could make such a process much easier and more cost-effective. The ATI includes provisions on the exchange of information about existing infrastructure, and the right to access that infrastructure on fair and reasonable commercial terms etc.

All of this brings us to the new ‘Fibre in Water‘ trial, which is being funded by £4 million and will run for 3-years to help “cutting-edge innovators to trial what could be a quicker and more cost-effective way of connecting fibre optic cables to homes, businesses and mobile masts, without the disruption caused by digging up roads and land.”

In addition, the fibre optic cables could also be used (via connected sensors) to help detect and thus reduce leakage from the public water supply (similar systems already exist, but are expensive to deploy). According to the Government, about 20% of the total water put into the public supply is lost every day due to leaks. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage, and this project can help,” said DCMS.

Matt Warman, UK Digital Infrastructure Minister, said:

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

So 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.”

Infrastructure sharing often seems like an obvious solution, but as we’ve said before, the reality can be complex. For example, running fibre optic cables down water and sewer networks doesn’t always work due to limited space, access and the fact that a lot of these things are too old or unstable to risk such disruption.

NOTE: The government has already given broadband firms access to existing infrastructure to help speed up rollout, with electricity poles used “extensively throughout England to carry broadband cables“, albeit carefully due to the obvious safety issues.

On the other hand, there are parts of the water network where it can work and commercial agreements, such as the one that Neos Networks signed with Thames Water in 2017 (here), do provide proof. But that was for a sewer network, where water quality is less of a concern, while the Government are talking about the same pipes that can be used for drinking water.

The Government says they recognise the “deployment challenges for essential utilities such as water and telecoms are complex and tightly regulated because both are parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure.” The project will thus consider these regulatory barriers as well as the economic, technical, cultural and collaborative challenges and impact on consumer bills.

Any solution used to trial fibre optic cables in the water mains will be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) before being used in a real-world setting. The DWI is said to require “rigorous testing” ahead of approving any products that can be used in drinking water pipes (fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries, such as Spain).

Speaking of those ATI regulations, the Government are currently still considering giving broadband firms access to more than 1 million kilometres of underground utility ducts to boost the rollout of next-generation broadband – including electricity, gas and sewer networks – and “will soon respond” to the aforementioned consultation.

All of this is designed to support their £5bn Project Gigabit programme, which seeks to extend such broadband networks to reach at least 85% of UK premises by the end of 2025, and they also aim to get “as close to 100% as possible” – depending upon how the industry responds (as commercial builds are expected to tackle the first 80% of premises, then Project Gigabit will aim to tackle the final 20% of rural and semi-rural areas).

Otherwise, The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024. The final year of the project will explore scaling proven solutions right across the country. Meanwhile, the deadline for applications to the competition is 4th October 2021 (details here). The plan is to select a consortium, which could comprise telecoms companies, utility providers and engineering firms, to lead and deliver the project. As part of this, a region or multiple regions of the country will be selected to host the trial.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
41 Responses
  1. awedwadad says:

    why do these articles drop at 12:01 am

    1. Ben says:

      Many news articles are based on press releases which will sometimes have a specific day and/or time that they should be published (or at the very least a ‘do not publish before’). In these cases, the press releases and other information is often sent to the media ahead of time under NDA to allow them to actually prepare/write the article, but they aren’t able to publish it until the official release date.

      As a result, Mark likely schedules the articles for 00:01 on the day they are able to be published.

  2. Onephat says:

    Didn’t ISPR run this as an April Fool one year?

  3. Ray Woodward says:

    Oh, yet another of Mr Pastry’s jokes ..:-)

  4. Brian says:

    Mainly isolated rural properties around here are on private supply, but could be useful somewhere.

  5. DL says:

    I wonder how they deal with valves?

    1. Mark says:

      And the water meter, pressure reducing valves etc.

    2. Rupert Walker says:

      This was my first thought, how do they deal with the water meters

    3. CarlT says:

      They go around them.

    1. Chris Sayers says:

      Thanks for the link, I understand now.

  6. Aled says:

    I wonder what type of pipes they are considering?

    In my head, I’m thinking installed along the top of large water distribution pipes. Perhaps with a dedicated access point retrofitted?

    This site seems to show the same concept
    http://strategies.nzl.com/industry-comment/reaching-the-unreachable-deploying-fibre-optic-cables-in-the-last-mile/

  7. Damien says:

    Why not just attach to the pipes?

    1. Art Fish says:

      That means big civils to dig the entire length, plus wayleaves; so is akin to digging separate infrastructure.

  8. Optimist says:

    So, your water pressure drops to zero, you try to contact the water company and find that your internet and phone are down as well.

    Or, you have no phone or broadband, so they turn off your water supply in order to fix it.

    Brilliant.

    1. Nick Roberts says:

      That’s why they are doing the trial ?

      Fibres probably better protected against damage inside a tough water pipe than some of the quick and dirty micro trench surface installs they are doing to speed things up at present.

      Loss of connection to the exchange/water works for either service is, in my experience, a long-interval event. In 35 years. In the same premises, I’ve only lost water supply once and then only a diminution of pressure, not total loss, leçcy once (Due to a car impacting a sub-station and and telecomms, gas and tellecoms never.

  9. Nick Roberts says:

    Why am I thinking cardiac catheterisation ?

    When’s the kit for the home central heating system going to be available ?

  10. Nick Roberts says:

    The only downside I can see might be the possibility of slight leakage at the introducer and exit sites on the pipe and incrased deposition of sediment held in suspension in the water as the water in the pipe asymetrically slows, due to turbulence and vortices, as it passes over the fibre – similar to the accumulation of sediments in a river.
    Freeze and cold weather damage ? It didnt happen in ’63 where I lived in London and that was 6 weeks of continous snow and cold. Unless the Gulf Stream packs it in under the effects of Global Warming, winters are likely to remain mild.
    Equally, they may well find that the introduction of long striaght sections off fibre speeds up water flow through channelling – think steam engine boiler.

  11. NE555 says:

    This won’t work well where there’s crumbling Victorian infrastructure. Where I live there have been two major water main failures in the last three years, with water gushing out into the road – the first taking so long they had to hand out bottled water to affected residents.

    When digging up the road to replace a broken section of main, the last thing they’ll be worrying about is some fibre cable within it. And as it’ll be impossible to splice it, the whole thing will have to be drawn through again.

    Therefore, I doubt this will fly for big fat spine cables carrying hundreds of fibres, unless there are multiple redundant routes.

    Cutting and intercepting the water supply pipe to every individual property doesn’t sound like an easy way to do an end-drop installation either, especially since you’ll need to dig and cut either side of the stopcock and water meter.

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      Absolutely, it won’t work well most places “North of Watford gap” where infrastructure is generally 50 years old plus.

    2. Mel says:

      If a pipe burst breaks the fibre cable, then the downstream side of the broken cable would be free to be washed down the pipe causing a blockage in the water pipe somewhere down the line, and if that can happen there will be two holes to dig in the road to fix a leak, instead of one.

    3. Winston Smith says:

      I imagine that the use case is to avoid the expense of laying fibre from the exchange/node to remote rural villages.

      At the village the fibre exits the water main and feeds a normal fibre or fixed wireless network. No messing around required with individual customer pipes.

  12. CarlT says:

    Not sure how well this will work but that’s why the trial. I imagine it being situationally useful rather than as a primary deployment method.

  13. Barney says:

    This reminds me of an old Google April Fools Joke (Google TiSP – 2007)

  14. Name says:

    I’d like to report a data leak from my tap.

  15. adslmax says:

    FTTE next (Fibre To The Electricity)

  16. GNewton says:

    Reminds of the former i3 Group’s ‘fibre through the sewage’ project in Bournemouth which was abandoned a decade ago. Chances are the ‘fibre through water pipes’ will end up in a similar farce.

    1. M Smith says:

      Otherwise know as brown fibre, or dark brown fibre or a variation those words etc. You get the picture. Yuk!

  17. Matt says:

    Lots of talk about water and pressure but what happens when it comes to replacing a section of damaged pipe that has fibre running through it? Can’t see this being a fit for purpose solution with single piece pipe.

    1. Jack says:

      Reading about it from the Craley.com website, basically depending on the damage to the pipe its either fixed without removing the fibre, some sort of sleeve bolted top and bottom or the fibre is removed from the section, more than likely between valves where the fibre exits the pipe and new fibre in put in, but this could be a short length of say 10-20m depending on the area.

  18. Buggerlugz says:

    I’m not too sure I like the idea fibre in my tub every time I run a bath, Though I see this far more likely happening than BT ever doing FTTP in my area!

  19. Buggerlugz says:

    Wouldn’t it be easier to use the electricity grid? Every plug in your house could provide Gigabit Ethernet then.

    1. GNewton says:

      The issue is not distributing the internet connectivity inside your house, but rather getting the fibre to your premise. This is what this trial is all about: Fibre through existing water pipes ending at your premise.

  20. Mark says:

    @GNewton. Who pays for the damage to old dodgy copper or cast iron pipes? Suspect a survey will tell them no go in some areas we’ve had to replace 20 properties in one street after water company attached water meters to existing 50 year old copper, still a good earner replacing it all in plastic.

    1. The Facts says:

      More likely lead.

  21. Stephen Dix says:

    3 Directors of H2o Networks/(Fibre City). currently serving jail sentences for fraud. Why wasnt a “must carry” obligation put on Virgin Media when it acquired the Broadband Cable infrastructure covering 15.5 million homes. All the original Broadband Cable Franchise Business Plans included Financial revenue streams from renting out space in their ducts over either 15 or 23 year License period granted by The Cable Authority. Virgin took control before the end of any Licence period being fulfilled.

    1. CarlT says:

      Virgin didn’t take control of anything. ntl and Telewest merged, then bought Virgin Mobile alongside the rights to use the Virgin brand.

      The cable companies were expecting to have to provide PIA and/or wholesale a while back. They’ve been given forbearance in return for expanding their network and wholesaling.

      They were originally planning not to build new cable but to connect to a bunch of BT exchanges and from there use Openreach. When Liberty Global acquired them that was shut down and Project Lightning introduced.

      The original business plans are quite irrelevant now. They also viewed leasing duct space as having a financially negative effect – others would take some of their market share using their infrastructure and potentially obstruct them from using those ducts for an FTTP overlay.

      Anyway, they’re building out XGSPON across the board and wholesaling it so all good.

  22. A_Builder says:

    There is always a risk the trial could be a wash out?

  23. Richard Ednay says:

    As well as using the fibre for communications, the use of the fibre as a sensor to detect and locate leaks in the water infrastructure adds a compelling dimension to this concept. Distributed Acoustic Sensing!

    Nick Roberts is right:
    “Fibres probably better protected against damage inside a tough water pipe…”

  24. Jack says:

    it quite genius when you think about it, you want better communications yet the cost involved with digging up the road etc is a nightmare yet there is already a conduit ready and waiting, PLUS as previous comment, its much better protected

    https://www.craley.com/craley-in-pipe-fibre

    AND using the the pipeline to detect leaks, OR intrusion, terrorism etc, quite brilliant.

    CRALEY are on linked in aswell https://www.linkedin.com/company/craley-group-limited

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