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Guest Editorial – Progress on Trial to Run Fibre via the Water Mains

Saturday, May 27th, 2023 (12:01 am) - Score 3,736
water valve

The UK Government’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) has today revealed their progress and learnings from the first phase of the £6.2m “Fibre in Water” trial, which aims to test the deployment of fibre optic (FTTP) broadband cables through a live water mains (used for drinking water).

The original trial (details), which started a year ago and is due to run for 2 years, planned to run fibre through 17km of live drinking water mains between Barnsley and Penistone (Yorkshire). In theory, this could then be used to help monitor the network for leakages, provide capacity to nearby 5G mobile masts and spread the coverage of gigabit broadband to an estimated 8,500 rural homes and businesses along the route, with little need for costly street works.

The first phase of the project (Project TAWCO) – supported by a consortium of Yorkshire Water, Commsworld, Arcadis and the University of Strathclyde – has now completed and was broadly focused on researching the legal and safety aspects of the plan, as well as some survey work. Overall, they’ve been successful is developing a workable commercial model between the two industries, but there were a few issues along the way.

For example, the survey work found that a relatively high number of private landowners along the route needed to be negotiated with and compensated for access. As a result of that, and other issues, TAWCO ended up proposing a more direct route with only 8km of Fibre in Water. This reduced the risk and cost, but the number of premises expected to benefit has been reduced a little to 7,000.

A decision on whether to proceed to the next build and design phase of the project is expected to be taken between now and June 2023. The report, which was exclusively shared with ISPreview, has been summarised below by DSIT.

NOTE: The following article is a special Guest Editorial for ISPreview.co.uk, which has been written by DSIT to summarise the outcome of Phase 1. The views of this piece stem from DSIT and may not represent those of this website.

The Concept

Fibre-optic cables would be deployed through live drinking water mains to monitor for leakage. Broadband companies could then gain access to the network to deliver gigabit-capable connections to homes and businesses along its route.

Fibre-in-Water-Diagram-DSIT

The concept involves putting the fibre cables into ‘messenger pipes’. These pipes will protect the cables and make sure they don’t touch the water. The installation is done whilst the pipes are in service and operating under normal pressures. This allows the water flow to be used to deploy an initial draw line, which is then used to pull the messenger pipe into the water mains. The fibre optic cable is blown into the messenger pipe to complete the installation.

The Project Objectives

HM Treasury approved the Fibre in Water project to spend ca. £6.2m through the Shared Outcomes Fund over 3 years (2021/22 to 2023/24) to pilot and facilitate delivery of advanced broadband and mobile services via drinking water mains. This project is led by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and supported by the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Geospatial Commission.

The project has initially focused on rural locations, with five key objectives:

  • Connecting the hardest to reach areas of the UK with advanced fixed and mobile services (gigabit, 4G, 5G), supporting the Project Gigabit  and Shared Rural Network;
  • Reducing the amount of clean water leakage from the water mains (c. 3bn litres a day, around 20% of all clean water);
  • De-risking the withdrawal of the Public Switched Telephone Network and 2G/3G from the water industry which is starting in 2021 and will be completed by 2025; and
  • Supporting digital transformation of the UK water industry.
  • Supporting the Geospatial Commission’s National Underground Asset Map (NUAR).

However, this project has its challenges. Bringing two separately regulated industries safely together in one pipe is complex. It means that a number of bodies (e.g. DSIT, Defra, Geospatial Commission,) need to be receptive and accommodating to ensure regulatory frameworks enable this at a cost that makes sense.

Award process

A grant competition was launched on the 9th August 2021 and closed after eight weeks on the 4th October 2021.

Ultimately, a consortium was selected (Project TAWCO – Telecoms and Water Combined Operations), consisting of a water company (Yorkshire Water), a telecoms operator (Commsworld), a research organisation (University of Strathclyde) and a Design & Engineering Consultancy (Arcadis).

TAWCO proposed a route from Barnsley to Penistone, designed to properly put the operational and commercial models to the test.

Project structure

The project is set up with a three-phase approach: 

Phase 1. Research and Investigation (getting the right technical, commercial, legal, maintenance and benefits structure in place before deployment) – gateway decision for the project and Government before moving to Phase 2 and 3.

Phase 2. Design and Build (deploying and final design of the solution before data collection and benefits start accruing).

Phase 3. Evaluation and Potential Scale Up (analysing the results from Phase 2 to see if it is worth pursuing this solution on a national level).

Activity and Lessons Learnt

We are now reaching the end of Phase 1. So, what has been done and what has this activity revealed?

The project has successfully developed a workable commercial model between the two industries, and broad agreement on ownership and asset management of fibre in water.

A commercial model has been developed to show that fibre in water is an investible opportunity, providing benefits to both industries and their customers. This method of installing fibre optic networks is a viable alternative to other methods such as PIA in the right location. The sensitivities to the commercial model are identified, and crucially include the number of valves along the water pipe.

The market for fibre in water technology and monitoring software is expanding in Europe, and more suppliers are now looking to gain approval for their solutions in the UK. Competition in this area will motivate further technical improvements and drive prices down, improving the cost benefit ratio of deployment.

Obviously, the regulatory landscape has had to be considered.

The Telecoms market is competitive and Fibre in Water could be one more method of getting broadband services to homes and businesses and that is good for competition and ultimately consumers.

The water sector in England and Wales is highly regulated, due to its structure i.e. a number of regional monopoly companies. Responsibility for regulatory compliance in the water sector sits with the water companies and the project team have been looking into regulatory issues as part of the project.

For the project to be possible, the materials and method of the physical installation needs to be approved by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) under section 31 of The Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 2016 on advice from the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI).

The purpose of this regulation is to provide control over the use by water suppliers of substances and products that come into contact with drinking water to ensure that they do not cause the water supply to be unwholesome.

It is the responsibility of the water supplier to ensure that products used in the production, supply and distribution of drinking water are appropriately approved, or meet the requirements before introducing them into the water supply and that appropriate risk assessments are undertaken throughout the process.

The Consortium has also considered the practical implication of installation along its proposed route e.g. the number of valves, pipe diameter and material, and the extent to which permission to access private land needs to be obtained.

The original route looped from Barnsley to Penistone via Ingbirchworth water treatment works. However, the surveys along the route revealed the presence of Asbestos Concrete (AC) water mains. This creates a risk to carrying out under pressure connections that are required to install the fittings for entry/exit of the fibre in water solution due to the characteristics of AC pipe dimensions and material, as well as additional cost.

The survey process also revealed the relatively high number of private landowners along the route that need to be negotiated with and compensate for access under the Telecoms Code, with the associated cost and risk to gaining access.

Consequently, TAWCO considered a number of alternative routes and ultimately proposed a more direct route with 8 kms of Fibre in Water which reduces risk and cost but maintains the substantive benefits.

Next steps

A gateway to decide whether Project TAWCO moves to Phases 2 (Build, Operate and Initial Review) and 3 (Knowledge Transfer and Final Evaluation) will be undertaken by DSIT and other government partners. Project TAWCO will also follow its governance. Both involve various boards and assessing the project deliverables against prescribed gateway criteria.

This process is expected to take place between April and June 2023.

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Mark-Jackson
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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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