Want fibre? Go through water pipes!

31-08-2021 | By Sam Brown

Getting high-speed internet access to rural areas is challenging, but a new scheme may change that. Why is remote internet access challenging to achieve, how can water pipes be exploited for internet services, and how could this also improve water services?

Why is remote internet access challenging to provide?

The internet has become so important in daily life that it is now considered an essential service like water, electricity, and gas. Without internet access, it is almost impossible to function daily as bills become paperless, mobile contracts are applied for using websites, and even entire applications are cloud-based.

Most homes in the UK have internet access, and those that do not have access to fibre will have access to a phone line and thereby have broadband access. However, those in remote areas reliant on broadband over a phone line will commonly see speeds less than 10Mbps. In a world where internet services are becoming increasingly important, such speeds are not sufficient.

Getting high-speed services via a physical connection to remote areas can be highly challenging for several reasons. The first challenge costs; any physical link requires a cable to be buried underground or mounted on overhead polls. While the costs between the two may differ, both are still very expensive, and spending large sums of money to connect a few houses in a remote location is not economical.

The second challenge is feasibility, as remote houses are unsurprisingly in remote locations. Burying cables is not always an option, and such instances require overhead cables. However, not all landowners are comfortable with having poles erected on their land, and their right to refuse installation can outright prevent services from being brought to remote areas.

The UK launches project to put the internet through water pipes

Recently, the UK government announced a £4m project to install fibre optic cables through water supply lines. Furthermore, the project will also combine such internet connections with device monitors that will help identify leaks in the water mains so that they can be more easily located when leaks do occur.

The idea for using water lines comes from the challenges of connecting remote locations to high-speed internet connections. As previously stated, trying to dig up trenches or install poles can be as much as four-fifths of an installation cost, and this figure only rises when trying to reach far-out places. However, since every home has a water connection, cables can be fed into water pipes directly. The construction of such pipes allows for cables to be easily inserted and fed through the pipe.

It should also be noted that while 96% of homes in the UK have access to superfast broadband, only 12% have access to fibre. This presents a challenge as increasing use of internet services will see the 96% suffer, and trying to install fibre using traditional methods is too expensive. The government is yet to select the telecom companies that will install an experimental line, and any application made will have to be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate.

How can such installations also improve other services?

Installing internet cables in water pipes has the apparent advantage that leaks can be detected. A small IoT device that bridges to cable connectors can also use this connection to both draw power and send sensory data. Leaks in water supply lines make up 1/5 of all water consumption, and finding water leaks is incredibly challenging. The use of sensors on cables would allow for more precise detection, thereby reducing the cost to repair leaks, increase the speed at which leaks can be found, and reduce the overall amount of water consumption.

However, it is not just water pipes that can be retrofitted with optic fibre cables; service tunnels and sewer systems could also be utilised. Not every home has a sewer connection, but many do, and these connections are typically large in diameter. This could enable larger cable bundles to be connected while other sensory systems could provide details such as gas production, chemical detection, and potentially even COVID detection.

Internet is becoming an essential service, and all have a right to its use. Not providing internet services to individuals can be considered crippling as denying access to a home, power, heating, and water.

By Sam Brown