UK government backs trial of full-fibre broadband delivery through water pipes

Novel means to advance national gigabit connectivity roll-out sees Yorkshire test of full-fibre broadband deployment via drinking water mains

In the latest part of its plan to speed up the nationwide roll-out of ultra-fast broadband supporting gigabit connectivity to 85% of the UK by 2025, and minimise building construction, the UK government has advanced its programme to target broadband for hard-to-reach homes with a trial running fibre-optic cables fed through water pipes in parts of South Yorkshire.

The government first announced in August 2021 that it was bankrolling a three-year project to accelerate the roll-out of broadband and mobile signals, part of which will now see fibre broadband cables fed through the country’s water pipes.

The scheme initially saw the government make £4m available for innovators to trial what could be a quicker and more cost-effective way to connect fibre-optic cables to homes, businesses and mobile masts, without the disruption caused by digging up roads and land. It believes that civil works, in particular installing new ducts and poles, can make up as much as four-fifths of the costs to industry of building gigabit-capable broadband networks.

The Fibre in Water scheme sets out to demonstrate what could be a greener, quicker and more cost-effective way of connecting fibre-optic cables, and will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day through leaks, which is calculated at about 20% of the total put into the public supply. Connected sensors will be placed in the pipes, allowing water companies to improve the speed and accuracy with which they can identify a leak and repair it.

The plans would see fibre-optic cables deployed through 17km of live drinking water mains between Barnsley and Penistone. This could enable broadband companies to tap into the network to deliver gigabit-capable connections to an estimated 8,500 homes and businesses along the route, helping to level up hard-to-reach communities.

The government believes that, if successful, the project could be replicated in other parts of the country and could turbocharge its £5bn Project Gigabit to bring top-of-the-range gigabit connections to millions of rural homes and businesses that would otherwise be left out of commercial deployment because of the higher costs of connection. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire have more than 300,000 rural homes and businesses in line for an upgrade, including 56,800 in South Yorkshire. 

“Digging up roads and land is one of the biggest obstacles to rolling out faster broadband, so we are exploring how we can make use of the existing water network to accelerate deployment and help detect and minimise water leaks,” said digital infrastructure minister Julia Lopez. “We are committed to getting homes and businesses across the country connected to better broadband and this cutting-edge project is an exciting example of the bold measures this government is leading on to level up communities with the very best digital connectivity.”

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The network will also be used to set up 5G masts to bring fast and reliable wireless broadband to hard-to-reach communities where wired systems are too expensive to deliver commercially. The first trial of its kind in the UK, it will also explore how fibre can help the water industry detect leaks, operate more efficiently and reduce the carbon cost of drinking water.

The trials will last up to two years and, if successful, the technology could be operational in networks from 2024 onwards. The first phase of the project will focus on the legal and safety aspects of the system and ensure that combining clean water and telecoms services in a single pipeline is safe, secure and commercially viable, before any technology is installed.

The project will be delivered by Yorkshire Water working with engineering company Arcadis and the University of Strathclyde – with further partners to be announced soon – to test solutions that reduce water leaks by putting fibre sensors in the pipes, which allow water companies to identify a leak and repair it sooner, often before it causes a problem for consumers. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage, and this project could help reach that goal.

The technology being deployed in the trials has been approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, which requires rigorous testing ahead of approving any products and the processes that introduce them into drinking water pipes. Fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries, such as Spain.

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