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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Greenbit 12/4/2012 | 9:16:19 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Blockage is not really a problem. Especially with Ca-Botics-technology the cable(s) is / are fixed on top of the sewer. A sewer normally is filled up to 70%, so no blockage can be. It looks different with the cable-bendguards of other technologies, because it is fixed within the region of waste-water.

In case of cleaning, sewers are normally cleaned by high-water-pressure. The Ca-Botics-Installation has been tested with more than 100 atm and no problems with data-transmitting while cleaning-procedure.
Greenbit 12/4/2012 | 9:16:20 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I have a littlebit knowledge about the technology, so i know that, especially with Ca-Botics robots it is possible to lay up to 300 ft. (one cable) or 600 ft. (double-cable installation) within 24 hrs.
In the next year it should be more.
Wolfpack1 12/4/2012 | 9:17:20 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I too have had experience with all three companies. CityNet's technology seems to be the only one that can last for the long term. They say it will last for 25+ years. Plus, you can add more cable for future capacity if need be. Also, I heard that CA-botics is no longer in business.
douggreen 12/4/2012 | 9:18:13 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Lowbandwit...In answer to your questions/comments:

1. The fiber takes up somewhere between 1% and 5% of the cross section of the sewer. Believe it or not, you hit on a sensitive issue. The smaller the better, and this is a competitive advantage for the fiber anchored directly to the wall of the pipe. It's also important not to interfere with the normal cleaning, maintenance, and periodic re-lining of the pipes.

2. Most of these guys have partnerships. For example, the CEO of CA-botics has a history in pipelines and a business that lays and reconditions pipes. He has a partnership with OFS, who manufactures special fiber for this purpose.

3. All three of the companies must negotiate with the sewer owners (usually city owned) for access.
lowbandwit 12/4/2012 | 9:18:17 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle It is an interesting concept, but there are a few things that trouble me:

1. It seems that data / sewage throughput are inversely proportional. The more fiber, the less of what the pipe was put in place for. (Wait, I thought fiber was supposed to CLEAN up blockage, not create it???) Who sets the limit?

2. Also seems like the difference in background between those with sewer experience and those with fiber experience would create an interesting dynamic.

3. What happens when two competing companies need access to the same space? Do they both strap on a weapon and go at it? Telecom Battlebots???

I proposed using water supply lines for fiber runs some time ago. I was thinking input instead of output. Go figure.
next-gen-wisdom 12/4/2012 | 9:18:28 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle manacing? At least you don't want it to get out of your toilet.
next-gen-wisdom 12/4/2012 | 9:18:29 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle It's supposed to be cheaper, less time, secure and cleaner (well, don't say cleaner). Why not take advantage of it?

New revenue for goverment and private utilities sector, CLECs and many others don't depend on ILECs networks. Interesting concept.
UK_BOY 12/4/2012 | 9:18:32 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Nuff said!
However, it will work well in densely populated areas, but I'd love to see them get fibre out of your septic !
rs50terra 12/4/2012 | 9:18:40 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle I guess the next thing we need is a Fiber To The Toilet Forum.
Anybody volunteers for Chairman?
The most urgent activity for the Forum will be to arrange an Interoperability event at Supercom. The question is: will it take place on the floor or in the toilet?
photon_mon 12/4/2012 | 9:18:41 PM
re: Sewer Robots Prepare for Battle Is it just me, or does the last robot particularly look menacing? Gives me the fibre runs.
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