Stream strives to string sewers with STAR

Mississauga, Ont.’s Stream Intelligent Networks Corp. last month unveiled its new technology for laying fibre conduits. The catch is that the networking company won’t have to turn one ounce of soil to place the fibre cables underground.

Instead of the traditional trench-digging method favoured by current network builders, Stream recently licensed the right to deploy STAR (Sewage Telecommunication Access by Robot) technology in Canada to install high-speed fibre-optic networks within storm sewer systems.

The company is in the midst of using STAR to construct a five-kilometre network in Mississauga, connecting 14 buildings with 216 strands of single-mode fibre cable.

The cable-laying robot, which is about 1.8 metres long and is equipped with five television cameras to monitor operations, is fed into the sewer system through manholes. Bill Chapman, the senior project manager for Stream, said the robot can fit into any standard Canadian sewer, ranging from eight-inch to 47-inch pipes.

“One of the initial things we do is a video inspection of the interior of the sewer tunnels,” Chapman added.

“This identifies any obstructions that we may be facing or any rehabilitation that may have to happen prior to construction.”

Chapman also identified a value-add to municipalities of the STAR technology.

“A lot of the existing (sewer) structure is old and it’s undocumented,” he explained. “The cleaning process, which is scaling the outside of the walls, plus the video presentation, gives an exact documentation of the condition of the sewers, so the city can review them and plan future maintenance.”

Despite these proposed benefits, most analysts believe STAR’s greatest attributes lies in the fact that it can lay fibre without having to rip up roads. With workers using STAR around the clock, Chapman said the robot can also lay fibre up to eight times faster than the traditional trench-digging method.

Steve Spooner, Stream’s president and CEO, could not put a dollar figure on how much it would cost for carriers or municipalities to use STAR to lay fibre, but Chapman suggested overall project costs should be lower than trench-digging.

“The cost to excavate, lay down standard conduit or duct systems, repack, refill and resurface (is tremendous),” Chapman said.

Michael Sone, president of analysis firm NBI/Michael Sone Associates in Toronto, was hesitant to dub STAR a solution to the last-mile bandwidth problem without knowing the costs of the technology. But he said STAR is compelling.

In the city of Toronto, he said, the number of companies applying for permission to lay fibre “is huge,” noting that all those applications could wreak havoc on a downtown core’s traffic if roads had to be ripped up.

Since its development by a German firm in 1997, STAR has been used to lay fibre in both Berlin and Tokyo. Despite this, John Adams, a former city councillor in Toronto and founder of the city’s Telecommunications Steering Committee, suggested STAR is probably more beneficial for laying fibre outside the downtown cores. STAR can only lay three cables in each sewer tunnel, he explained, whereas carriers now are dumping up to 20 conduits in Toronto’s common trench.

Stream also believes there is good potential for STAR to be used in industrial parks and outside the downtown cores. Most carriers have not bothered to turn their attention to that end, but many municipalities are looking at building their own city-wide fibre networks. Outside the downtown core, there is likely only a need for a few conduits.

Spooner said his company also plans to use STAR to build its own network when it lays fibre for other customers or carriers.