Departments launch £4m competition to explore running broadband through water pipes

Aim of funding mechanism is to speed up the rollout of fibre cables

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By Sam Trendall

16 Aug 2021

The government has launched a £4m competition to explore the possibility of deploying fibre broadband cables via the UK’s system of drinking water pipes.

The Fibre in Water scheme will award funding to run pilot schemes to test out proposals to use water mains infrastructure to “facilitate connecting the hardest-to-reach areas of the UK with advanced fixed and mobile telecoms services”. Ideas put forward should also contain suggestions for how technology could enable water companies to reduce by half what the government claims is currently a leakage rate of 20% for clean water.

The goal of the competition is to better understand – and, ultimately, overcome – barriers in the regulatory and planning systems, as well as the technical considerations for jointly delivering water and telecoms infrastructure.

Applications for funding are open until 8 October, after which a shortlist will be drawn up. Following an interview process for shortlisted bids, projects to receive grant funding will be chosen late this year, and money will be given out over the course of 2022, 2023 and early 2024.

Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman said: “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. 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.”

The contest is being run by the Departments for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, as well as the Geospatial Commission.

In addition to potential making use of water pipes to accelerate the rollout of fast internet connections, the government said it is also “considering giving broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts to boost the rollout of next-generation broadband – including electricity, gas and sewer networks”.

Sam Trendall is the editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where a version of this story first appeared.

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