Speedy internet has yet to arrive for many Americans. Internet speeds in the US, while improving, have languished behind peers in Europe and Asia (the country ranked 16th internationally in 2016). Even today, more than 30 million Americans, mostly poor and rural, lack broadband, reports the Center for Public Integrity.
Fixing this, say many internet service providers, is too expensive (or, at least, not an attractive investment for public companies’ shareholders). Nationally, digging trenches and tearing up pavement to connect homes to fiber-optic cables is a multi-billion-dollar proposition. As infrastructure funding has lagged far behind the need in the US (the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the country’s infrastructure a D+), progress is moving at a snail’s pace.
Frustrated, some cities have started microtrenching. Developed years ago, the technique is now taking off in municipalities across the US and Canada. Rather than dig deep trenches and rip up streets and sidewalks, microtrenching merely slices a single groove in pavement about an inch wide and a foot or so deep. Each tiny trench holds multiple cables stacked on top of one other.
A microtrench being cut.
Companies say cost savings over conventional methods can range from 75% to 300% (pdf), while laying the cables is far faster. Google Fiber says it cut its installation time for 50 homes from a month to one day. A city block can be completed in 24 hours (although some contractors complain of shallow trenches interfering with subsequent roadwork). So far, it seems a lack of standard municipal policies (and perhaps a lack of incentives among major telecoms) has hindered adoption.
New York, which launched its microtrenching initiative in 2013, hailed it as a faster and cheaper way to connect underserved areas, minimize disruptions and enhance competition to lower telecom prices. It’s now a formal part of the city’s infrastructure strategy (although Verizon has not released a report on its progress). San Francisco introduced its own proposal on March 14 in its effort to create a citywide broadband network and spur more competition from startups like Monkeybrains and Sonic. “It is difficult for many small service providers to enter the market and compete to deliver service,” city supervisor Mark Farrell told the San Francisco Examiner. “We have great small internet service providers that are fighting for a piece of the pie in our city to deliver services to our residents but they are denied because of cost and other prohibitions.” Companies are now applying the technique in cities in Washington state, Minnesota, Texas, and California with a focus on urban areas and building “last mile” links to individual houses.
Alphabet’s Google Fiber division is a fan. The tech giant is hoping to use microtrenching in the 12 urban markets in the US where it operates (the company is lobbying San Antonio to approve the technique). To show the potential of microtrenching when it debuted, Google staged a race in its parking lot to see which installers could lay cable the fastest. The winner? Ditch Witch, says Google.