UK Government £4m Trial For Fibre Cables In Water Pipes

water pouring

Government trial to install fibre cables in water pipes to accelerate rollout of broadband and mobile signals in hard to reach areas

The British government is funding a three year project that is designed to install Fibre to the Premise (FTTP) high speed broadband into the hardest to reach rural locations.

The government on Monday announced the £4 million three year ‘Fibre in Water’ project will utilise the UK’s network of water pipes to install fibre optic cabling for broadband access, as well as helping to reduce leakage from the public water supply.

Running fibre optic cabling through water and sewer pipes is not a new idea, but has previously been used in mostly city locations, where digging up roads for broadband cabling would have been too disruptive and therefore expensive.

Fibre in Water

The reality however of feeding fibre cabling into water or sewer pipes never really took off in a big way because of concerns of limited space in the pipework, access to the water pipes itself, and often the fact that existing water pipes were either too old and fragile to risk such an installation.

But now the government says that in oder to speed up the rollout of superfast broadband and mobile coverage in rural areas, it will make £4m “available for 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.”

It cited that civil works (i.e. digging up roads, installing new ducting or telephone poles) is the most expensive element in any fibre installation.

Openreach during the installation of its fibre network in recent, has made use of the existing underground and overground ducting to ‘blow’ fibre cables through the pipes (ducts) that were originally installed to carry the copper cables for the UK’s telephone network.

But it often had to resort to expensive civil works when a duct was blocked from ground subsidence, or even when ducting had been damaged due to a building contractor smashing through the ducting when installing their own pipeworks.

The government estimates that civil works can make up as much as four fifths of the costs to industry of building new gigabit-capable broadband networks.

Project Gigabit

It hopes this trial “could turbocharge the government’s £5 billion Project Gigabit plan to level up broadband access in hard-to-reach areas as well as the £1 billion Shared Rural Network which will bring strong and reliable 4G phone signals to many of the most isolated parts of the country.

“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,” explained digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman.

“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,” said Warman.

Water leaks

Besides using fibre optic cables in the water pipes to hopefully deliver high speed FTTP, and improve mobile connectivity, the cabling will also be used to try and reduce water leaks.

Over 20 percent of the total in the water put into the public supply is lost because of leaks.

The project will look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day due to leaks, by putting connected sensors in the pipes which allow water companies to improve the speed and accuracy with which they can identify a leak and repair it.

The government also said that 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 requires rigorous testing ahead of approving any products that can be used in drinking water pipes, and fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries such as Spain.

The government is also considering giving broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts including electricity, gas and sewer network.

The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024.