Layer upon layer: why re-using existing infrastructure just makes so much fibre sense
The lesson one might draw from this is that if there’s something already there that works, duplicating it all over again doesn’t make that much sense. (Somewhere in the multiverse, another columnist is failing to restrain themselves from saying ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’) Today’s trucks and passenger cars aren’t driving over the same stones the Romans laid down, as that wouldn’t work: but, repurposed and extended, the ghost of that original route usefully lives on.
In the UK, as with many countries that industrialised in the 19th Century, vast communication networks like the Old North Road were built. Take the canal system: over 4,000km of these are still directly connected together, including the largest chunk of them all, the Manchester Ship Canal, or the much-beloved Leeds & Liverpool, which recently earned its own musical tribute. (Interestingly, the Romans had them too, only for a different purpose: irrigation.) As we all know, the Victorians were immensely impressive sewer builders: why we have so many statues of imperialist warriors when Bazalgette, whose work on creating a wastewater network for London saved thousands from cholera, is something of a mystery. Sometimes, that amazing infrastructure is neglected, or even abandoned: though the pandemic will probably change things once again, many train travellers question the brutal Beeching cuts of the 1950s and 1960s, cutting 5000km out of the permanent way, which at its post-World War I peak was 38,000 km.
‘Mighty-scarce hi-viz jacket wearing workers’
Now, we’re building out more fibre infrastructure. Ofcom says we need to, as full fibre reaches only 14% of UK homes. We are all for that, but at the same time… why don’t we steal a trick from the Romans and look at a bit of craft re-purposing of the equivalent of an ancient track or two—and save an awful lot of trench digging, traffic disruption and cost? After all, civil works, in particular installing new ducts and poles, can make up as much as 80% of the price to industry of building new gigabit-capable broadband networks?
Turns out, we are. The UK Government has a great little project going on called the Fibre in Water initiative, which is a very sensible attempt to at once fix on-going leakage issues in water pipes but also use those existing, already-connected tubes as a way to test potentially faster, cheaper ways to deploy fibre to hard-to-reach rural areas that doesn’t involve digging trenches and hiring currently mighty-scarce hi-viz jacket wearing workers.
Fibre via water pipes should just be the start. Those Beeching-savaged rail systems are about to totally upgrade the 16,000km-plus of legacy data cables that carry information essential to running them, such as signalling for trains, trackside sensors, CCTV, and Internet for trains, railway depots and offices. Now, Network Rail, which is in charge of all the physical rail network infrastructure, wants to talk to the telco world about securing “the funding necessary to upgrade telecoms infrastructure along the rail network in an innovative way without relying on subsidies from government or passengers” and which have “capacity for telecoms services from third parties to also make use of”. As the organisation’s Chief Executive notes, “This proposal makes good business sense for all parties: we get a cutting-edge, future-proof telecoms infrastructure; the investor gets a great business opportunity; train passengers in Britain get an improved service for years to come, and the taxpayer saves a significant amount of money.”
What about all those overhead tree-top cables, too?
This has been tried before (remember the ‘carrier’s carrier’ pitch of Hermes in the 1990s?), but it remains such an obviously good idea that it surely needs to be looked at seriously. So does fibre through water; so does fibre canal-side—in the late 1990s the British Waterways Board sold the right to lay more than 1000 kilometres of fibre-optic cable to Fibreway, a company owned by Britain’s then largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, GPT, and which is still in operation, though how much of its current network runs alongside water is not that clear from its website.
It’s also an idea that has already been tried, with profit; in the late 1970s Cable & Wireless scored big by repurposing old ‘hydraulic’ pipes laid down in the 1880s as telecom infrastructure. Other networks beyond existing/legacy physical networks like road, train and water also exist tilt your head up to see how much of the British tree-top landscape is dominated by old overhead phone lines and cables, that surely could easily be reused for 5G, as could all those many, many telegraph copper-delivering poles.
In two more thousand years, if we survive the climate crisis, will the descendants of the A1 still be in use? I’m pretty sure it will, short of practical matter transporters being deployed! By the same token, will the unimaginable quantum communications networks of that far-off time run on infrastructure that once carried atoms of water, trains or humans?
Who knows? In the meantime, to save you time and money, look at whatever way you can to put fibre into something already in the customer’s road, and by whatever means necessary.