Water networks to trial for broadband delivery in Britain

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The initiative to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas will be accompanied with water leak detection technology.

The three-year project is intended to trial infrastructure sharing for broadband delivery without the time and cost – and inconveniences – of digging up roads and verges.

Civil works, in particular installing new ducts and poles, are calculated to make up as much as 80% of the costs to industry of building the new gigabit-capable broadband network.

The government is making available £4 million ($5.5 million) to trial the scheme, which follows the initiation of a consultation process in June 2020 on potential utility and telecom infrastructure sharing by broadband companies to accelerate the rollout and achievement of national coverage of the next-generation network.

“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,” states Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman.

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“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.”

The project will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost due to leaks, estimated at around 20% of the total put into the public supply. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage, and this project is expected to help to reach that goal.

With the tight regulation around infrastructure deployment in these sectors, the project also will consider the 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 need approval from the Drinking Water Inspectorate before being used in a real-world setting. While a first in Britain, fibre has been deployed in water pipes in other countries such as Spain.

The government also said in a statement that it intends to respond soon to the regulation changes proposed in the 2020 consultation, which could open up more than 1 million kilometres of underground electricity, gas and sewer infrastructure to broadband provider access.

Broadband suppliers are already able to access some existing infrastructure, with electricity poles used extensively throughout England to carry broadband cables.

The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024. The final year of the project will explore scaling proven solutions across the country.

Research from the National Infrastructure Commission quoted by government has suggested that infrastructure re-use could lead to an £8 billion ($11,06 billion) cost saving in the deployment of the gigabit-capable broadband.