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Using Nature’s Own Networks, Part1: The Power of the Inland Waterway

Back in 1989, when the first proposals for this World Wide Web thing were drafted (wonder whatever happened to that?), we were all going to see this great new film, ‘Honey, I Shrunk The Kids’ and Black Box (er, ok) were top of the charts—someone had the mad idea of installing cables under canal towpaths.

Using Nature’s Own Networks, Part1: The Power of the Inland Waterway
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
11 Oct 2023

The conceit was that as the canal grid provided an already-there national network, why not piggyback off it and lay fibre by it to quickly hook cities up by only digging up quiet banks, not busy city streets?

As an idea, it didn’t catch fire—in the end, the company set up to try and pioneer this, Fibreway, was bought. But before it died in 1998, it did manage to lay an impressive 500 km of cable—mainly a terrestrial trunk network for intercity fibre connections. 

Which actually, two decades on, still work perfectly well—and if you’re a Sky customer, may well be part of the infrastructure you depend on for your broadband.

‘It’s A DeLorean!’

So—back to the future? Should we make better use of our lovely old physical canal as a great delivery network just as good as the pipes under our pavements?

Well, yes. But more interesting, there’s a much wider—and far from UK-only—deeply ambitious and important vision of using inland waterways for a myriad of useful comms use cases for mobile coverage and private networks.

Let’s start with the UK canals. There are 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of canals and navigable rivers in mainland Britain (there were once 7,000); even after decades of state indifference, in England and Wales alone 2,700 of them (4,345 km) form a ready-to-use connected, joined up waterway system.

Now let’s pull the camera out and get a pan-European perspective. Since 1990, the EU has been talking about a combined common and integrated network of roads, railways, airports, and water infrastructure that would adhere to a high EU-wide standard.

This is called TEN-T, the Trans-European Transport Network. Composed of two layers, the “core” and then the “comprehensive” networks. The latter is the base layer, while the core (logically enough) is what Member States see as the most strategically important links and centres of the TEN-T as a whole.

The core needs to be brought up to an agreed standard by 2030—the rest has 20 years longer—and is organised into nine administrative “corridors”. Corridors are designed to cover the most important long-distance flows across the EU, with funding coming from a special central Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) for Transport

There are other things going on in rail and sea transport, and confusingly enough there are other corridors—indeed there are other CEF projects, but for now our focus has to be on TEN-T in the round. It’s not always that useful to talk about EU funding, but we are happy to state that, with a 2021-27 €25.8 billion budget, this is a serious endeavour.

And as we said, water is seen as a very important TEN-T transport network. A glance at either a physical or mental map will show why; in Europe, rivers matter. The Rhine is the key inland waterway in Europe, so unsurprisingly it’s a TEN-T corridor; The Rhine-Danube Corridor is deemed the main east-west link across Continental Europe.

If rivers matter, then so do seas and thus ports. Another corridor is The Atlantic, made up of the ports of the Iberian Peninsula to the port of Le Havre in Northern France, and the cities of Strasbourg and Mannheim on the French/German border. If a port is open to commercial traffic and interconnected with other trans-European transport routes, then it can be a TEN-T node.

Water is often just one element in a TEN-T corridor—the Atlantic corridor, to use just one example, is envisaged as being based around rail, road, inland waterway, and maritime routes. Similarly, the North Sea-Baltic Corridor consists of a lot (8828 km) of rail, road (6934 km) – as well as a vital 2839 km of inland waterways, for example. South of the Alps, the Mediterranean Corridor is the main east-west axis in the TEN-T Network, and its 3000km is a miniature model of the entire TEN-T concept itself, consisting of road and rail, and also the 

Po, several Northern Italian canals (inland waterways), and then linking north to the Rhone from Lyon to Marseille.

Nature’s own network?

But water can be important on its own. Nearly 55 million people inhabit the “catchment areas” of the seven biggest Baltic rivers (imagine a clock that runs from the Oder in Germany all the way round to the mighty Göta River and its associated Canal—one of the largest civil engineering projects ever undertaken in Scandinavia).

On its own, the Göta represents 10% of all Sweden’s land area; any integrated transport 

vision that ignores this kind of medium would be foolish. But so would any kind of integrated digital vision, too—given that TEN-T says that it wants 11,250 km of inland waterways, including 210 inland ports--a tad more than the distance from Afghanistan to the United States—to be part of an upgraded, integrated common transport base.

In the second part of our discussion, we will look at what immense help all that water can give our future digital economy. And for all our talk of the EU, there will also be a call-back to all those peaceful English and Welsh canals and their potential to play a part in our own version of all of this.

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