The fibreway beside our waterways

Did you know that below our towpaths lies a national network of fibre-optic cables carrying vital communications across the country? As former British Waterways project manager and fellow Friend, Robert Hall, explains, the fibreway story began in 1989.

Men in hi-viz vests dig a trench next to the canal for fibre-optic cables The pilot installation on the Union Canal, in Scotland, March 1994. Photo by Robert Hall

Back then, the world looked very different. There was no public internet, mobile phones were the size of bricks and only BT or Mercury could provide telecommunications. Nonetheless, we were at the beginning of a communications revolution and people were looking for new ways to build landline, mobile or fibre networks right across the UK.

Telephone Cables Ltd came to us saying, ‘We want to put our submarine cables in your canals.’ All of us at British Waterways thought it was an extraordinary idea - how would we dredge and how would the cables cope with locks? But I was told to go and investigate. And so began my long and fascinating journey.

Eventually, British Waterways and Telephone Cables Ltd agreed that it wasn’t practical to put fibre optic cable in the canal itself. Together, we decided to try installing cables under the towpath. A new venture, called Fibreway, was set up to install the cables and telecoms operators would lease individual fibres within them.

The first trial route was built in Scotland in early 1994. This was a challenge, not least because one of the canals is an Ancient Monument, requiring careful protection. But we proved the idea could work.    

In March 1994, Fibreway was officially launched with a breakfast press conference at the Ritz Hotel in London. Some small routes were completed along canals in the North West and just outside London, but the big opportunity, a truly national network, was still missing.

A full cable reel standing on the canal towpath awaiting installation Cabling in Scotland, March 1994. Photo by Robert Hall

Eventually, in 1997, TeleWest, a cable television company, agreed to buy and maintain a national network linking London, with the major cities of the north. Over 300km of cable was to be installed on the canals, with a completion date by the end of the year. This was a major challenge for British Waterways and Fibreway, which at one point, had over 70 separate teams working on it.

Then several other operators leased fibres from Fibreway. In some cases, they needed new cabling under the towpath. So as a result, Fibreway grew further to cover about 500km, with British Waterways gaining income from leasing out the lines within them.

Since then, Fibreway has been bought and sold, and today the network is part of Sky. Other operators have also installed fibre optic cables along the towpaths and the revenue they provide continues to help our charity’s work.

Artist's impression of cables running under the footpath Today our canals help the internet flow under your feet.

I think Fibreway succeeded because of hard work, solid financing and the support of British Waterways. One of my colleagues at the time, Ian White, who was responsible for British Waterways Fibreway installation team, reminisced with me:

“Was the original idea of a laying a fibre network around the canal network a success? Yes, definitely. It has given a quiet and unobtrusive 21st century use to a 200 year old network. It was successfully installed and has remained resilient over the past twenty years.”

I thought that was a great way to summarise it. So, the next time you take a walk on the towpath, it’s good to know that your emails, games or videos could be running under your feet today, thanks to hard work of our teams more than 20 years ago.

Robert Hall worked for British Waterways between 1976 and 1995 and was the Telecommunications Project Manager from 1990. He has been collecting the memories of staff involved in the Fibreway project for keeping in our archives.

Last date edited: 4 February 2022

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