This week, two streets in the river town of Quincy, Ill., will become different than all others -- under the surface, that is. The town is testing the option to run a superfast fiber to the home (FTTH) network in an unusual way -- through the wastewater system.

Before committing to full-blown FTTH via the sewer, the 16-square-mile city of 17,000 homes is using this pilot to test whether deployment in this fashion is the right approach, as was announced in mid-September. Fiber-optic cable will be installed in 1,300 feet of sewer on Harrison and S. 46th streets beginning Sept. 21 and concluding Sept. 24. Then the cable will rest there, untouched by the city for 30 days. On Oct. 24, the city will begin evaluating the cables to determine whether this method is a fit for Quincy. This will be the first sewer deployment in the U.S. for i3 America, part of i3 Group Ltd., which has deployed multiple FTTH networks through wastewater systems in the United Kingdom and Australia. The deployment comes at no cost to Quincy.

"We decided, after all the due diligence was done with our legal folks and my council, that we would allow [i3 Group] to come in and test a part of what they do," said Quincy Mayor John Spring. "We're looking forward to it. We're not sure what we'll find out, but they're pretty confident that if it's working in the older part of the world, it should work in the newer part of the world."

Fiber to the Home History

Many current U.S. FTTH networks (in about 85 cities) deployed fiber underground via trenching or other alternatives. Trenching involves digging a three-foot channel in the public right of way, which is not only costly, but also highly disruptive. Then there are alternatives like microtrenching, which while still in the public right of way, requires a smaller duct --  about half an inch wide and less than a foot deep. This method is still disruptive, though less so, and is estimated to cost less than half the cost of traditional trenching, according to OSP Magazine.

On the whole, 16 percent of North American households have FTTH broadband connections, compared to 34 percent in Japan, according to the Fiber to the Home Council. Many of these international locales that offer FTTH -- like Tokyo, Paris and Vienna, to name a few -- are using the sewer approach, which saves money. The reason for that is simple: The wastewater system already exists, so there are no costs to run separate lines for fiber-optic cables.

"From where we have all our active equipment, we actually run out using the sewer system -- or any other existing conduits that are available -- to take that fiber into the immediate neighborhood area," said Alasdair Rettie, technical director at the i3 Group. "And then we'll use traditional or other methods we've devised to actually connect to the homes. We've achieved a solution that reduces cost by 30 to 50 percent."

Jessica Mulholland, Web Editor Jessica Mulholland  |  Web Editor/Photographer

Jessica Mulholland has been a writer and editor for more than 10 years. She was previously the editor of Emergency Management magazine, and she loves that she can incorporate her love of photography into her work as a part of the Government Technology editorial team. Jessica can be reached at jmulholland@govtech.com and @jbronwen on Twitter.