UK Government to launch £4m fibre via water mains deployment
The project is aimed at delivering fibre broadband to hard to reach rural areas while monitoring for leaks in the water system. Currently 20% of the mains water supply is lost before it ever reaches UK homes through leaks in the infrastructure. The £4m investment will be used to test monitors in pipelines so water companies can identify and repair any leaks more quickly.
Running fibre cables through the water network will avoid the disruption of digging up roads for cabling and can target hard to reach homes and businesses. These fibre to the premises (FTTP) lines will provide gigabit capable broadband. The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has previousl estimated that reusing infrastructure could save £8bn for broadband builders. Civil works including new poles and ducts can total up to four-fifths of the deployment costs of a new broadband network.
Fibre in Water
The aptly named Fibre in Water trial will run for three years and provide innovators with the opportunity to connect businesses, homes and mobile masts in a cost-effective and non-disruptive way. The sensor network will be less expensive to deploy than existing systems and will help water companies meet their leak reduction targets of 50%, according to the DCMS.
Although challenges remain to the reuse of existing infrastructure - limited space and instability due to age - there are areas where the new rollout is expected to work well. For example, Neos Networks signed a similar agreement with Thames Water in 2017 albeit for a sewer network rather than alongside drinking water. The government has acknowledges that there are deployment challenges because of the nature of the utilities involved with these critical parts of the nation's infrastructure.
Any solutions must be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) which has asked for rigorous testing before deployment in a real world setting. Fibre is currently deployed in water pipes in Spain and New Zealand.
The fund was launched after a government call for evidence in June on ways to boost next generation broadband. There are currently more than one million kilometres of underwater ducts. A consortium of utilities providers, telecoms and engineering companies will deliver the project with applications due by October 4th. Utilities companies have until September 4th to respond to the consultation on changing regulations designed to make sharing infrastructure easier.
Deployment will support Project Gigabit which aims to extend fast fibre broadband to at least 85% of UK promises by 2025. Although 96% of the UK has access to superfast broadband, with download speeds of at least 24 Mbps, only 12% has access to the faster speeds of full fibre broadband. Project Gigabit aims to tackle hard to reach and rural areas after commercial builds tackle the major 80% of the network.
As well as fibre deployment, FiW will include new solutions for monitoring asset security and water leakage. The current solutions, the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), will be closed down in 2025 making the need for a new solution critical.
The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024. Its final year will be spent scaling proven solutions across the UK.