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Utilities Team Up on Plans to Run Fibre Through the Sewers

"We are also creating a robot that will lay fibre optics in small diameter pipes"

By claudia glover

Five water utilities have teamed up with infrastructure firm SSE Telecoms on plans to lay fibre optic cables in the UK’s sprawling network of waste water pipes.

The five – including Thames Water and Scottish Water – have set up a technical user group to “agree a common set of standards” so that the cable can be laid safely.

Telcos have previously used sewage and storm water pipes to lay fibre optic cable, but have lacked a unified set of safety and quality standards for the work.

Scottish Water alone has 32,000 miles of wastewater pipes.

Needed: Help from “People Who Own the Sewers”

Paul Clark, SSE Telecoms’ utility director, told Computer Business Review on a call that working together was quick, environmentally friendly, and a win-win.

When the fibre optic cable is laid, it includes sensors that allows the water utilities to accurately pinpoint leaks. While most already use limited sensors, the scale of their infrastructure often means they rely on more analogue methods.

Thames Water, for example, currently employs teams of night-time leak-detectors, with “listening sticks”, to walk the streets of London detecting leaks.

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The technology used to maintain the cables, however, will also act deliver “real-time data on waste-water flows”, reducing wastage and pollution.

Clark said: “There is a fibre shortage within the UK.

“Currently the only fibre rich areas are in the inner cities. We have to find a way to implement fibre in a cost effective and environmentally effective way.

“By working with people who own the sewers you are able to gain access to pre-existing pipes. It’s quick to do, it’s safe to do and it’s very friendly on the local environment because you don’t have to close off traffic and undergo costly works on the roads”.

Cable in Sewers Tests Mimic the Conditions

Clark continued: “We need to ensure that the methodology is beneficial to both us and the sewer infrastructure. We must provide a secure online framework that will last a long time and that is safe.

In order to meet these guidelines, the cables have had to undergo certain tests.

He explained: “We work with utility companies to mimic the conditions of the sewers, by exposing the cables to chemical tests and jetting tests.

“We are also creating a robot that will lay fibre optics in small diameter pipes, where it is impossible for the cable to be laid manually”.

The robot is in the final stages of testing and will be launched upon completion. It is currently nameless, but SSE Telecoms said it is open to suggestions.

See Also: IT in the Super Sewer

SSE Telecoms has already pioneered this scheme in London, in conjunction with Thames water, laying fibre optic sewer cables throughout the sewage network.

In 2006 a firm based in St Asaph in North Wales used the sewers to lay cables for six universities and three councils, and two years before that, Scottish Water utilised its sewers to roll-out a fibre broadband network to a business park at Rosyth in Fife.

The rise of 5G has brought with it a fresh impetus to get creative about how network infrastructure is rolled out, not least because 5G requires masts that are typically connected by fibre optic cables every 250 metres.

To lay so much cable, there must be a system in place to do so safely and practically.

Paul Kerr, MD of  Scottish Water, said in a release: “Scottish Water has 32,000 miles of wastewater pipes throughout Scotland.

“It makes perfect sense to utilise this vast infrastructure in order to help enable telecommunications, reduce disruption to our customers and the environment, and support smart networks to provide real-time monitoring.

He added: “With most of us using the internet and our mobile phones on a daily basis, there is a constant demand for increased and improved communications infrastructure. By using the existing sewer network, we can support SSE Enterprise Telecoms in their development of a set of standard specifications to support the deployment of fibre in the sewer network, whilst ensuring that the Scottish Water network is protected.”

Read All About It: Gov’t Plans to Slash 5G Mast Red Tape: Launches £30m Rural 5G Fund


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