Dark fiber follows British canal system

Sept. 1, 1998

Dark fiber follows British canal system

By Stephen Hardy

With fiber networks spreading throughout the world at an unprecedented pace, rights-of-way become a precious commodity. The demand for cabling space has added new value to existing--and in some cases, nearly obsolete--infrastructures that could provide such access rights. While roadways and railroad tracks represent the more common infrastructures, a British company has found a new path for its fiber: canals.

gpt Fibreway Ltd. (Coventry, UK) is nearing completion of a figure-eight network of dark fiber that largely follows the national canal system managed by British Waterways. When the 1166-km network is finished in March 1999, it will represent the only nationwide dark- fiber network in Great Britain, according to gpt Fibreway`s marketing manager, Helen Foster.

Like their counterparts in other developed countries, Britian`s canals no longer play a major role in the transport of freight. However, British Waterways realized that thanks to the current telecommunications environment, the system might be able to carry bytes as well as pleasure boats, particularly since 60% of the country`s population lives within 8 km of a canal. gpt (jointly owned by gec of the UK and Siemens of Germany) won the right to use the waterway for its planned dark-fiber network in 1993. The company pays an annual fee of 𧶲,000 and a percentage of the profits for access to the canals.

gpt first thought to lay the cable directly in the canals. However, the regular dredging of the canals would expose the cable to damage. The cable would have to be brought out of the water and on to land at every lock as well. The company then hit on the idea of burying the cable under the towpaths that run alongside the canals. Originally used by horse teams to pull barges down the waterway, the towpaths now carry little more than pedestrian traffic. The lack of heavy traffic means that cable installed under the towpath would be less subject to fiber cuts than it would beneath more heavily trafficked roadways. The installation of cable in the towpaths also meant less disruption to local communities and business districts--although the towpaths did present challenges of their own.

"While in some senses it`s faster to dig because you don`t have all the surface problems, it`s a lot more unknown in terms of land conditions," says Foster. "It`s got to be surveyed very closely; you`ve always got the possibility of unknown obstructions."

These obstructions can prove more than physical when you`re installing cable through what some consider a beloved national resource. "When you talk to people about these things, they tell you about `the hole in the road`--but they get very emotional about `the hole in our towpath,`" Foster explains. gpt Fibreway has quickly learned that each new link in the network requires careful preparation. "That means taking care of things like breeding seasons--we have to avoid the water vole breeding season because they`re a protected species. We`ve had to be careful around badger setts, we`ve had to be careful around sites of special scientific interest."

gpt Fibreway currently is tiptoeing among the water voles on the western half of the network; the eastern half, which runs from Manchester to London through Leeds and Birmingham, was lit this past January (see figure). In most areas the company is laying two reinforced plastic ducts, each with four subducts, at the same depth as British Telecom`s trunk lines. gpt Fibreway reserves one of the eight subducts for maintenance; the rest are available for fiber. The company is filling only two of the subducts in its initial build, laying either 48- or 96-strand standard singlemode cable from gpt subsidiary tcl as anticipated demand dictates.

The network has already attracted nine customers, says Foster. UK cable-TV firm Telewest is the most visible user; in fact, it owns one of the two cables along its Fibreway route of choice. The other customers also will use their capacity to provide telecommunications-related services. However, Foster views large corporations in need of direct physical connections among their facilities as a potentially lucrative market that as yet remains untapped.

"It`s a concept that the IT companies have had for a while, but haven`t been able to do anything about because it needed fiber available at a sensible price," she explains. "Now that fiber around the country is becoming available, their ideas are beginning to take off. This is definitely a revolution that`s being led by the IT companies, rather than by the telecoms companies."

The network will put gpt Fibreway in a good position to meet this expected demand because of its position as the only nationwide provider of dark fiber in Great Britain, Foster believes. The company`s main competition will come from providers of leased bandwidth, who will be able to offer virtual network connections. gpt Fibreway will rely on its ability to offer a range of services--from pure dark fiber to a turnkey private network--in its effort to achieve success. q

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