Broadband providers in Southern California could have an option that's cheaper than digging new trenches in order to deliver services via fiber-optic cable.
State regulators have approved the placement of fiber optics in natural gas pipelines operated by San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas Co.
Sempra Fiber Links, an affiliated technology company, will place the conduits.
According to Sempra Fiber Links president Mike Clover, the company's technology allows the placement of polyethylene conduit in active gas mains. Fiber is then threaded through the conduit. The fiber-in-gas (FIG) technology will be marketed as a last-mile solution.
"Demand for broadband service in metropolitan areas is growing rapidly. Yet the traditional manner of digging up city streets and sidewalks to get fiber in the ground has become a significant obstacle — enough that we decided to tackle the problem with FIG," Clover said.
Indeed, some cities have declared moratoriums on downtown trenching, while they develop a comprehensive plan for moving technology installers into cooperative trenches.
Many city engineers also believe trenches cut the effective life of a street, so cities are struggling to come up with reimbursement schedules for trenchers that anticipates that infrastructure loss.
Sempra Fiber Links believes use of FIG technology could reduce the price of traditional trenching by 30% to 40%, with the savings dependent on the number and type of connections.
"There's a gas line in nearly every street in the country," Clover said.
Sempra Fiber Links is a technology company, not a broadband provider, Clover stressed. He noted that the company has secured one patent, with seven pending. It seeks business relationships with vendors or municipalities.
The CPUC approval was a major step for the company. "Interested partners wanted to see Sempra do it in its own pipes first," Clover said.
Clover doesn't see his technology used to boost distribution of digital-subscriber line service, because that technology is based on copper wires. Instead, Clover envisions use of the technology in niches such as gated communities, which block broadband providers from above-the-ground installations.
Sempra Fiber Links is in talks with major companies and the parties are anxious to get pilots started, Clover said.