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Bournemouth's sewer-based fibre plan scrapped

The company that manages Bournemouth's sewers says it canned the i3 Group's plans on technical and commercial grounds, ZDNet UK can reveal
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

The much-heralded Fibrecity deployment of high-speed broadband using Bournemouth's sewer system will not go ahead, after a deal with Wessex Water fell through, ZDNet UK can reveal.

A fast broadband rollout is taking place in the town, with homes and businesses getting speeds of up to 100Mbps through the i3 Group's network.

However, Wessex Water, the company that manages Bournemouth's sewerage systems, told ZDNet UK that i3's plans to run core fibre through its waste-water infrastructure never got past the pilot stage. Instead, the deployment that is taking place is based on digging up roads and pavements, like most fibre rollouts.

The technology methodology didn't work for us, nor did the reward for placing the cables in the sewers.
– Ian Drury, Wessex Water

A trial of i3's sewer-based system did take place, linking Bournemouth's town hall with the nearby BIC convention centre, Wessex Water spokesman Ian Drury said on Thursday. Following that pilot, Drury said, Wessex Water decided not to allow a further Bournemouth deployment to go ahead, on both technical and business-related grounds. He said the decision was made within the last few months.

"The reason the project in Bournemouth didn't move forward was because there were contractual problems," Drury told ZDNet UK in a statement. "The technology methodology didn't work for us, nor did the reward for placing the cables in the sewers.

"We would certainly look at other proposals should they arise, if the terms and conditions are right for us. We haven't ruled out putting fibre-optic cables in sewers."

i3, formerly known as H20 Networks, specialises in deploying fibre through sewers. It has a patented method for doing so — called the FS System — which it says is cheaper and less disruptive than standard underground cable rollouts. The idea is to use the sewers for the main trunk of the network, running connectivity to the end of each street. Individual premises are then hooked up using a system called micro-trenching, which involves laying fibre-optic cable in a thin, shallow trench that is then quickly sealed up.

"Using patented technology, a Fibrecity network is deployed through the waste-water infrastructure and brought to homes or business through micro-trenching systems," a web page for i3's Fibrecity Holdings read on Thursday. "Bournemouth recently became the UK's first Fibrecity. The next UK Fibrecity will be Dundee, with work scheduled to start in summer 2010."

Bournemouth residents have complained about the levels of road digging that the Fibrecity project has involved. "All the publicity said it's in the sewers, so why are all the pavements in Charminster dug up?" one reader of Bournemouth's Daily Echo commented on the newspaper's website on 2 August. Another reader reported that the company had "dug up the same part of a pavement in Kinson three times now".

The Bournemouth pilot, which serves as i3's case study for the FS System, took place in 2007. Since then, i3 has announced many more Fibrecity deals around the world, ranging from Derby, Halton, Nottingham, Plymouth and York to Brisbane in Australia. The company does not sell connectivity itself, but offers a wholesale product that retail ISPs then resell to homes and businesses.

Scottish Water, which manages Dundee's sewers, told ZDNet UK that it had been working in partnership with i3 for several years. "We are well advanced with the work on sewers and have deployed point-to-point fibre technology in parts of Scotland already," Scottish Water said in a statement on Wednesday. "Progress has seen us move away from the proof-of-concept phase and to active commercial deployment of the technology.

"We have recently signed a non-exclusive framework agreement with i3 to expand operations across Scotland. The deployment model using the sewers, micro-trenching and other innovative techniques means minimal disruption to roads and the network while maximising the return on investment. The approach also creates another revenue stream for Scottish Water and is an excellent example of a water company commercially developing existing infrastructure in an innovative partnership with an external partner," it added.

Geo, one of i3's fibre rivals, provides high-speed connectivity to...

...businesses and ISPs in central London using the area's spacious Victorian sewer system. Chief executive Chris Smedley said that he did not know the specifics of the Bournemouth case, but noted that there is "a big difference between running a network in the man-entry system in central London [and] installing in a very challenging environment in smaller sewers [in residential or suburban areas], where your network is going to be more of a blockage".

"Technical and commercial and operational discussions need to take place with another utility," Smedley told ZDNet UKon Thursday. "We would never assume that that is something that will work until we had resolved those issues in advance with the operator, and we would make public statements to the market after that."

Smedley pointed out that Geo was still piloting various roll-out techniques, including sewer-based deployment, in sites such as Manchester's Oxford Road corridor. "I would not want anyone to draw a conclusion that the market with smaller providers like H20 or Geo is not highly capable of providing part of the overall solution [for] fibre-optic networks all over the UK," he added.

The laying of fibre in sewers is not heavily regulated in the UK. The Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) told ZDNet UK that such activities are "a matter for commercial negotiation between the water and sewerage company and the company wishing to lay the cable".

Ofwat said it had no involvement aside from ensuring that the sewers don't get blocked, that the sewerage customers see some financial benefit from the water and sewerage company renting access to the infrastructure, and that those customers don't have to pay for the laying of the cables or their maintenance. The telecoms regulator, Ofcom, told ZDNet UK that sewer cabling did not fall under its remit either, being a matter for the government instead.

The government published a discussion paper (PDF) in July on using other utilities' infrastructure for broadband deployment. "Sewerage and electricity infrastructure appears to offer the best scope for helping reduce the cost of network deployment, with some sharing of sewerage and electricity infrastructure already taking place: for example, Geo who have a fibre network in the London sewer system, and H2O Networks, who are installing a fibre network in Bournemouth and Dundee," the paper stated.

The i3 Group has refused to comment on this story, citing confidentiality agreements with the other parties involved.

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