Trials in new ways of connecting fibre optic cables to homes, businesses and mobile masts, without digging trenches, have been allocated £4m research funding.
If it works, it could wipe billions of pounds off the order books of utilities contrtactors.
As much as 80% of the cost of the government’s £5bn Project Gigabit to widen broadband access, is in civil engineering works, in particular installing new ducts and poles.
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 government has launched a competition to select a consortium, which could comprise telecoms companies, utility providers and engineering companies, to deliver the project. The Fibre in Water competition is being run by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Geospatial Commission.
The project will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day due to leaks, which is 20% of the total put into the public supply. It will involve putting connected sensors in the pipes which allow water companies to improve the speed and accuracy with which they can identify a leak and repair it. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage, and this project can help to reach that goal.
The government is already 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 – and will soon respond to a consultation on changing regulations to make infrastructure sharing easier.
The government has already given broadband suppliers access to existing infrastructure to help speed up roll out, with electricity poles used extensively throughout England to carry broadband cables.
Stephen Unger, commissioner at the Geospatial Commission, said: “Fibre is the future of digital communications. Its unmatched performance and reliability can seamlessly connect our society together. But it took over a hundred years to build the legacy copper network, so replacing it with fibre won’t be easy.
“The best way to meet this challenge is to use existing infrastructure, such as the water pipes that already reach every home and business in the country. Our ambition must be for reliable broadband to become as easy to access tomorrow as drinking water is today.
The Fibre in Water project is scheduled to conclude in March 2024. The final year of the project will explore scaling proven solutions right across the country.