Page last updated at 08:43 GMT, Thursday, 6 December 2007

Fast broadband goes underground

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News

Cable in sewer

While politicians and network providers work out how they can afford to provide the UK with a network capable of delivering super-fast broadband speeds, one company is already doing it - via the sewers.

H20 networks has been in negotiations with water firms for the last five years and began rolling out its fibre-via-sewers network - known as Focus (Fibre Optical Cable Underground Sewer) in 2003.

Universities in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Bournemouth are enjoying high-speed fibre connections with speeds of up to 20Gbps (gigabits per second), while council offices around the UK are also benefiting from super-fast broadband.

Next month it plans to move to a new phase of its roll-out which could see it provide fibre networks to businesses and consumers around the UK.

Much cheaper

Managing director Elfed Thomas came up with the idea of using sewer ducts for fibre some years ago.

"We had this big infrastructure problem in the UK and we had this existing ducting and I just thought why can't we use the sewers," he explained.

Now, some years from that initial thought, he has high hopes for his sewer-based network.

Elfed Thomas, MD of H2O
Mr Thomas had a Eureka moment about using the sewers to lay fibre

"There is no reason why this can't be deployed throughout the UK," he told the BBC News website.

According to him there are some big benefits to using the sewers to deploy a fibre network.

The alternative way of laying fibre involves digging up the road which can be extremely disruptive, expensive and slow.

"To roll out a network deploying fibre over a 2km area would be six to 12 months in the planning. We can do it physically in four hours," said Mr Thomas.

There is also a huge disparity in the costs as well.

"It costs between 150 and 200 per metre to dig up the roads and our costs are nowhere near that," he said.

It cost Napier University in the order of 80,000 to have a 1.2km fibre network. With a traditional fibre network these costs would have been in the region of 400,000 to 1.2m, said Mr Thomas.

Environmentally-friendly

The other major advantage over competing systems, for instance the leased lines that BT supplies to businesses, is that the costs are not dependent on how much capacity is required.

"You can have 10Mbps or 20Gbps and it costs the same," said Mr Thomas.

With over 13,500 students, the need for fast and robust networks at Napier University was obvious.

And with methods of teaching changing, the network is playing an ever-more important role as a learning tool.

Engineers fitting cable into sewer
No road digging is required to lay the cable in the sewers

"Students require access to the network 24 hours a day, and some of the teaching material that they are downloading, including video, can consist of quite large files," commented Iain Russell, the network systems manager at Napier University.

Bournemouth Borough Council regarded the system as a more environmentally-friendly way of providing fast net access.

It found that it was able to get its network in just over a week.

"The fact that it only took one week to implement is incredible," said Bob Rhodes, IT Project manager for Bournemouth Borough Council.

"Bournemouth is a town with a lot of tourism and architectural heritage, so it's great that we are using the local sewer network," he said.

In March of this year, Ask4 became the first internet service provider to hook up with H2O.

Closing the divide

With the cost savings and the apparent ease to deploy it is perhaps surprising that more firms are not offering the same service.

"In principle it sounds great and I'm sure that it will play a role in the deployment of fibre," said Tim Johnson, an analyst with research firm Point Topic.

"But there are questions about its usage in a domestic environment, such as how do you get the cable from the sewer into the house. Would you, for instance, do it via the toilet? There are also questions about leakage," he said.

For H20, the most difficult part of the process came in persuading the water companies to allow their real-estate to be used for untested purposes.

A sewer
There are 360,000 miles of sewers in the UK
"The hardest thing was getting the water companies to agree to this. It has taken a long time," said Mr Thomas.

It meant H20 had to come up with a system that did not interfere with the hydraulic flow.

Part of the solution lay in making sure that the cables were not connected in the sewer itself.

Using the sewers for fibre is not new. Japan has a fairly widespread sewer-based fibre network and in Paris, a similar system is being used.

Some experts think that the UK's archaic sewer system is not up to the job but Mr Thomas disputes this.

"The sewer network is more than capable of handling cable," he said.

There are around 360,000 miles of sewers in the UK. Because of the nature of the infrastructure it does not extend to remoter areas but will, according to Mr Thomas, also play a part in helping bring fibre to the remoter parts of the UK.

"We can bring the nearest fibre to within ten miles of villages," he said.


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