Robots in sewers could get Britain online

A scheme to run fibres down sewer pipes could uncork the last-mile bottleneck that is holding back online business in Britain

A company that plans to solve the last-mile problem by wiring the sewers of major cities is hoping to install fibre beneath a major UK city soon. "We hope to have permission by the end of December," said Larry Berent, president of Citynet International, though he would not say in which city.

While there is no shortage of international and long distance bandwidth, so called "metro" networks are currently the bottleneck for service providers. Linking two cities is easy, but most of the cost of any data service is taken up by the "tails" which link to the user sites. These are expensive because of the cost and disruption of digging up roads and installing fibre in cities.

CityNet's answer is to use a wheeled robot to pull fibres along existing underground pipes -- the sewer network. The process includes a thorough clean-up of the pipework, and the fibres are held in place by expanding collars which actually strengthen the sewer pipe. In most cases, the company hopes to get rights to wire the sewers in exchange for a promise to maintain the pipes -- a win-win situation for city councils faced with spiralling maintenance bills for ageing sewer pipes.

The scheme won't take off instantly, however. CityNet has a monopoly on the patented robot (a wheeled cylinder which crawls along the inside of the pipe) and can afford to wait till it has guaranteed revenue, before acting on any permissions to cable cities. "We won't deploy networks until we have contracts for some of the bandwidth we will provide," said Berent.

CityNet currently has permissions to wire up the underside of Vienna -- which conjures up images of Orson Wells with a cable terminator -- and Seville. In the US it has eight cities lined up, with construction started in Albuquerque.

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