Insights Government launches broadband rollout trial to target hard-to-reach homes through UK’s water pipes


The Government has announced a three-year project to accelerate the rollout of broadband and mobile signal in rural areas by feeding fibre-optic broadband cables through the UK’s water pipes. The Government says that the scheme could also help to reduce leakage from the public water supply.

Four million pounds is being made available for innovators to trial what could be a quicker and more cost-effective way of connecting fibre optic cables to homes, businesses and mobile masts, without the disruption caused by digging up roads and land.

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “The cost of digging up roads and land is the biggest obstacle telecoms companies face when connecting hard-to-reach areas to better broadband, but beneath our feet there is a vast network of pipes reaching virtually every building in the country. So we are calling on Britain’s brilliant innovators to help us use this infrastructure to serve a dual purpose of serving up not just fresh and clean water but also lightning-fast digital connectivity.”

The project will also look to test solutions that reduce the amount of water lost every day due to leaks, which is 20% of the total put into the public supply. It will involve putting connected sensors in the pipes which allow water companies to improve the speed and accuracy with which they can identify a leak and repair it. Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage, and this project can help to reach that goal.

The Government says that deployment challenges for essential utilities such as water and telecoms are complex and tightly regulated because both are parts of the country’s critical national infrastructure. The project will consider these regulatory barriers as well as the economic, technical, cultural and collaborative challenges and impact on consumer bills. Fibre has already been deployed in water pipes in other countries such as Spain.

Any solution used to trial fibre optic cables in the water mains will be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) before being used. The Government explains that the DWI requires rigorous testing ahead of approving any products that can be used in drinking water pipes.

The Government is already considering giving broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts, including electricity, gas and sewer networks, to boost the rollout of next-generation broadband, and will soon respond to a consultation on changing regulations to make infrastructure sharing easier.

The Fibre in Water project is due to conclude in March 2024. The final year of the project will explore scaling proven solutions across the country. The deadline for applications to the competition is 4 October 2021. To read the Government’s press release in full, click here. To read the Government’s guidance on the new project, click here.