Times ArticleJune 3, 2016
“It is sometimes easy to forget that the digital superhighway requires the sort of engineering work needed to build a real one. The key to make internet speeds faster involves digging up roads and slowing down everything else in the process. Yet where there’s much – as is mucking up the travel plans of countless motorists – there’s brass, and a small, South Yorkshire based company has seized an opportunity to ride the ultrafast broadband boom from an unlikely direction. The Webster Machine Company was founded in Sheffield in the mid 1960’s to develop drilling and cutting machines for coal mining. It was the first company to use hydraulic power for cutting on a road header (a machine used for excavation) and diversified into tunnelling machines and construction equipment in the 1990’s as pits closed. Now its expertise in cutting head attachments, developed by Ian Webster, son of the founder, has landed it an unlikely role of laying fibre-optic cables directly to peoples doors. FibreCity was struggling to use a street-digging machine in Bournemouth, one of the first fibre-to-the-premises networks, when it asked Mr Webster to develop a cutting wheel for the project. Webster invested in it’s own equipment as FibreCity became City-Fibre and won a tender to roll out fibre in York. The benefits of its micro-trenching machines are that they can dig thin pavement tunnels at up to 120 metres an hour, whereas tearing up a road can take days. It cuts the civil engineering costs in laying fibre dramatically. The pavements of suburban York now feature ribbons where the micro trenching machines have gone past to connect “Toby” boxes to household gates. The installation is so fast that some residents have complained that the fibre has not been laid, only to find that their house had been connected while they were at the shops. Webster Equipment is set to double its fleet of machines featuring it’s cutting wheels with another big city fibre build on the horizon. The £1 million cost of the investment, is large, but the push by Ofcom to force companies to run fibre directly to customers doors rather than rely on old copper lines could pay off in spades.
– Nic Fildes / Technology & Communication Editor