Water pipes might carry fibre cables to improve broadband access in rural areas
Rural communities which struggle to access super-fast broadband could end up with fibre cables being added to their water pipes.
The futuristic plan could also help with reducing water leaks as new sensors could be added to the pipe network at the same time.
The idea is very much in its infancy but has gained support from water companies, including Anglian Water, which has already spoken to broadband suppliers about the opportunities.
Now £4 million is available for research and development to "cutting-edge 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", explained a Government spokesman.
Civil works can account for up to four fifths of the bill in such projects.
Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman, the MP for Boston and Skegness, 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.
"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."
Using the water pipe network would also be beneficial to the water companies.
Connected sensors could be placed in the pipes allowing water companies to identify leaks more quickly and then repair them. As much of 20% of the water put into public supply ends up wasted due to leaks.
Water companies are already tasked with reducing that number.
A spokesperson for Anglian Water said: “We are already exploring the installation of fibre optics in both water and water recycling assets as they potentially could enable fantastic insight about our systems to both improve customer service and protect the environment, and be an an effective way to provide broadband access to customers in our region.
“It is still early days, but we have already started trials to install fibre in water mains. Our main focus is maintaining and enhancing the quality of service we provide to our customers in terms of water quality and customer experience. We are also in discussion with a number of broadband fibre providers to explore the potential of this opportunity, increase the fibre network in our region in a cost effective way.
"If we can insert fibre safely and without compromising water quality, we will be able to support the connectivity of our customers and communities, particularly in areas of our region which are remote and would struggle to get access to fibre through traditional means. As a company with a commitment to support social as well as environmental prosperity we are wholeheartedly behind the drive to explore this opportunity.”
Any method for adding fibre optic cables to the water mains will have to be approved by the Drinking Water Inspectorate before being used in the real world.
The government is already considering giving broadband firms access to more than a million kilometres of underground utility ducts to boost the rollout of next-generation broadband - including electricity, gas and sewer networks - and will soon respond to a consultation on changing regulations to make infrastructure sharing easier.
Broadband suppliers already use electricity poles to carry their cables.
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. Deadline for applications to the competition is 4 October.