As part of the government’s efforts to rapidly expand superfast broadband throughout the UK, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is looking to maximise existing infrastructure

Today, the UK government has announced a new broadband project that will see fibre optic cables threaded through water mains pipes as a method of making deployment more cost- and time-efficient, as well as reducing disruption.
The £4 million ‘Fibre in Water’ competition is being launched to select the consortium who will deliver this project, which will include identifying which region or regions will host the trial.
Applications for the project close on the 4th of October this year, with the trial scheduled for completion in March 2024.
Using existing pipe infrastructure in this way is hardly a novel idea. In Spain, the deployment of fibre optic cables within pipes supplying drinking water has already been a proven success. In the UK, it appears that drinking water pipes have not been explored before, but sewerage pipes have been trialled before; SSE Enterprise Telecoms notably began to lay fibre optic cables in Thames Water’s sewerage network back in 2017 and last year set about creating a technical user group including five of the UK’s leading water companies, in an effort to increase dialogue between the two industries.
At the time, SSE said that such solutions could ultimately reduce their deployment costs by up to 60%.
However, such plans naturally come with their own obstacles – often in a quite literal sense. In many cases, these water or sewerage networks are simply unsuitable for such novel deployments, whether due to a lack of space or simply being too old or unstable to handle the modifications.
There are other benefits beyond simply ease of deployment, however. The deployed solutions should also allow for the pipe’s activity itself to be more closely observed, with smart sensors able to detect things like leaks. According to government figures, around 20% of the total water pumped into public circulation every day is wasted through leaks.
“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,” said the UK’s minister for digital infrastructure 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.”
Naturally, any solution used to trial fibre optic cables in this way will first be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate before being used in a real-world setting.
Last year, the Access to Infrastructure (ATI) Regulations 2016 were announced to be coming under review, with changes expected to be announced this year related to simplifying the sharing of utility infrastructure. Theoretically, this review could see the telecoms sector gain access to more than a million kilometres of undergrounds utility ducts.
Could utility ducts hold the key to delivering on the UK government’s gigabit broadband goals? Find out what the operators think of this novel connectivity idea at this year’s live Connected Britain conference  
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