Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle

Ever think the last mile could end in your bathroom?

A small but determined group of companies say that stringing fiber through city sewers is the answer to high-speed access. And they're vying for contracts based on their methods of running cable where none (or, depending on your viewpoint, many) have gone before.

At least three companies, CableRunner North America LLC, Ca-botics Fiber Systems, and CityNet Telecommunications Inc., say they can do the best job of helping service providers, cities, utilities, and other interested parties plant fiber infrastructure while avoiding the disruption and high cost involved in pulling up the pavement.

CityNet, which started out billing itself as a service provider two years ago (see Startup to Pipe $275M Into Sewer), lists CableRunner as a business partner on its Website; and the two cofounded a sewer-fiber training center in Boca Raton.

CableRunner started as a subsidiary of the municipality of Vienna, Austria. Its main stock in trade is the technology it's used in various European projects, especially Vienna.

Ca-botics, like CableRunner, is predominantly a technology company, offering services based on its own brand of robotic sewer-boring hardware. CityNet has evaluated Ca-botics services, but nothing's come of it yet.

Despite past relationships and knowledge of each other's wares and services, shrinking budgets and higher stakes in the local access market have sharpened competitive edges among all three companies in recent months. Central to the argument is how best to run fiber cable through city sewers, clearly a specialty not mastered by many other firms.

For its part, CityNet claims to use a variety of approaches to getting the cable installed, although it relies mainly on a specialized robot called SAM (short for Sewer Access Module) that's made by Ka-Te System AG, a Zurich-based vendor. SAM puts rings into pipes, then runs conduit and cable via those rings. The advantage of SAM, CityNet says, is that SAM can enter sewers that can't be accessed by humans. Once it's installed the fiber, it can be used to maintain and troubleshoot the cable as well. SAM can be used in a range of irregularly shaped pipes measuring as small as eight inches.

Ca-botics contends its technique, called STAR (Sewer Telecommunication Access by Robot), is faster than ring-based approaches like CityNet's and can work in smaller pipes. STAR works by embedding small hooks or anchors into the pipe, then threading specially designed cable through the pipeline.

CableRunner's approach involves a combination of techniques, including a robot that installs cable in a kind of tray laid into the pipe [ed. note: what? no cutesy acronym? KACK, maybe? HAL?]. CableRunner says this approach is superior to rings or anchors because it doesn't damage the pipe wall in the same way the other techniques do.

It's a bit early to evaluate these claims. It may be more interesting to watch how the various companies unfold in the real world. So far, progress seems slow.

CityNet, which has an alliance with Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA) to supply fiber and termination units for its sewer installations, has completed a network in Albuquerque and has projects underway in Indianapolis and in Seville, Spain.

CableRunner has several European sewer networks to its credit. It also won contracting rights in Egypt this year.

Ca-botics has installed sewer networks in Dublin, Ohio, and in several Canadian cities, including Mississauga, Ontario. It has a joint supply agreement with OFS, which offers specially sheathed wares for use in sewers as part of Ca-botics' solution.

Each of these companies appears to have many irons in the fire -- plans underway with slow-moving municipalities and public utilities commissions worldwide. And while none has managed to take the industry by storm-sewer, each vendor has proven its ability to forge partnerships as needed to get work done. It will be interesting to see whether their attempts to exist without each other result in a larger or smaller market.

— Mary Jander, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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Ca-botics 12/5/2012 | 4:40:41 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle


ca-botics at the present is the only company still standing and operating. ca-botics technology is now  capable of laying upto 2400 ft of fiber optic cables per day, in just an 8 hour shift.

Ca-botics 12/5/2012 | 4:40:40 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle

FYI, ca-botics is still in business and has had success in several countries in the last decade, and on going negotiations are presently in process for canadian cities.

cyber_techy 12/4/2012 | 9:18:56 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle You guys should sponsor a bakeoff test between these 3 sewer bots. David Neuman could create an obstacle course of sorts, complete w/large deposits of dootie they need to navigate over, around or through!

Atleast LR testers won't have to worry about what they eat before coming to work that day. The more they eat, the more scalable testing they can do :-)
stuartb 12/4/2012 | 9:18:56 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle You guys should sponsor a bakeoff test between these 3 sewer bots. David Neuman could create an obstacle course of sorts, complete w/large deposits of dootie they need to navigate over, around or through!
beowulf888 12/4/2012 | 9:18:55 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I'm more worried about what the Roto-Rooter man will do my fiber link!

I assume that they'd pull the fiber out of the sewer pipe befor it gets to a subscriber's premises.

thecornercube 12/4/2012 | 9:18:51 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I'd be worried about getting a crappy connection....:)
douggreen 12/4/2012 | 9:18:50 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I did some consulting in this business and learned more about sewers than I care to admit. I suppose you could say that I got an earfull of sewage.

I don't understand the statement by CityNet that the rings can be installed in irregular pipe, unless they mean pipes that change size. The rings they use depend on contact friction with the sides of the pipes to hold them in place. If the pipes aren't round, the holding power will be compromised.

Someone asked about how the fiber gets into the building. Sometimes it just gets to the nearest manhole, then through a short drilled pipe. If they can get the robots into 4 inch pipes like CA-botics claims, they can run them right into the building and have the fiber exit in the cleanout opening....Or I guess you could run in right into your toilet if you like?

Regarding benchmarks, I would like to see LightReading ask each vendor to give some actual installation times that can be verified.

lightFleeting 12/4/2012 | 9:18:49 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I asked CityNet this same question a couple of years ago. They have another device they send in to do the cleanout. So if it needs cleaning you call them. The next question would be if they go belly-up, who takes care of this stuff? The fiber is supported by a carrier that they insert into the pipe. Sending in a normal cleanout machine would really mess up everything.
fon_guy 12/4/2012 | 9:18:47 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Fiber to the toilet gives new meaning to squatter's rights.
photon_mon 12/4/2012 | 9:18:42 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Last pile could prove to be a bottleneck.
And I worry about unwelcome access to my ring.
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