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100Mbit/s sewer broadband rollout coming your way

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The idea of laying fibre along sewer lines has been sloshing around the networking business for years. Now a UK firm claims today's broadband will seem a trickle compared to the torrents of data it'll soon offer.

It's always been hard to argue with the logic. Sewers are deep underground where cable would be protected from clumsy drilling. They also run into the heart of virtually every building in Britain.

Best of all, they were dug in the 19th century when Irish labour was cheap, and planning and safety restrictions were lax. You've just got to buy cable that the rats can't gnaw into.

It all works in theory, and Merseyside-based H2O Networks says it's finally cracked the practical stuff. The good burghers of either Bournemouth, Dundee or Northampton will be first to ride the 100Mbit/s wave with fibre to their homes with plans to complete the first of three "Fibrecity" deployments within three years.

The final decision on who'll get the maiden rollout is set for April and will be made by whichever council gets its works permissions sorted first, according to H20 Networks managing director Elfred Thomas. Engineers should be on the ground in September, and work will be completed in 18 months to two years, he said. The 100Mbit/s figure is claimed as a minimum.

It's taken six years to get this far. "The negotiations with water companies are never easy," Thomas said.

Laying the trunk cables along sewer mains should be the easy part for the engineers - the majority of the schedule will be devoted to taking the lines into homes. "The key factor is making sure we're in every home," Thomas said.

H2O has already connected up university and council buildings in Bournemouth and Dundee via the sewers to prove its pitch.

The plan is for H2O as consumer provider to run the fibre networks as a wholesaler. It claims to be in "advanced talks" with ISPs and major TV providers to offer access to consumers. Thomas anticipates the cost of internet access via the sewers to be about the same as other broadband platforms, with extra services available on top.

Government, BT and Ofcom discussions on how to speed up the rest of the country's internet infrastructure are no threat to the plans, Thomas insists. "Subsidies ain't gonna happen," he said. "We're just getting on with it and we don't need any government funding."

It's estimated that each of the three initial Fibre Cities (towns, really) will cost between £15m and £20m.

The timing of the announcement assures public interest in H2O's proposition. The mainstream press has noticed in the last few months that the UK is starting to look increasingly complacent, as European and international rivals invest in speedy internet infrastructure.

Ofcom's consultation on the UK's way forward, launched in September, too heavily praised its own success in fostering competition in the existing flaky ADSL market for many tastes.

A freshly-dug ubiquitous national fibre network would come in at about £15bn, it's reckoned. BT isn't going to stump up for that alone, preferring to limit its fibre investment to new builds where it's cheap, planning consent is in the bag, and nobody complains when you dig up the road.

Indeed, the popular view in the broadband business is that the next generation networks we'll use to get online in the future will be a patchwork of cellular, wireless, fibre, and DSL technologies.

Cynics remind us that sewer fibre was last contemplated seriously by a gaggle of dark fibre startups during the dotcom boom, who insisted the bandwidth would be needed imminently, and could be sold at a high price. They were all flushed out when the results of the broader greedfest hit the pan.

Maybe the sewer fibre evangelists were just stung by putting supply before demand last time round. Now there's BitTorrent, IPTV, YouTube, booming online gaming, and (judging by the email we get) a net populace increasingly frustrated by bandwidth-throttling, "unlimited" marketing and other chicanery employed by ISPs to beat a living out of the 20th century tubes.

We hope the current economic climate doesn't portend a dotcom fate for H2O's ambitions. If nothing else it'll keep us all in puns for years, and give the last laugh to Senator Ted Stevens: the internet really will be a series of tubes. Sort of. ®

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