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A small army of robots is infiltrating the sewers in our central cities. Their mission? To deliver the blazing speed of fiber optics without digging up the streets-a slow, costly and unpopular process.

Slinking through sewers may sound like a messy proposition, but it has earned $100 million in venture capital for Silver Spring, MD-based CityNet Telecommunications-the company that hopes to use the sewer robots to wire up cities throughout the United States. “The one clear pathway that gets you down the street and into every building is the water and sewer system,” says CityNet’s CEO Robert Berger, a former telecommunications lawyer and current vice chairman for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in Maryland.

Robots have been inspecting, cleaning and repairing sewers since the 1970s, but they didn’t begin tackling telecommunication’s “last mile” until the late 1980s, when Tokyo planners and robot maker Nippon Hume saw an opportunity to string bandwidth under Tokyo’s narrow, congested streets.

Sewer robots have since lit up over 900 kilometers of pipes across Japan. Networking firms in Europe joined the game three years ago, but it wasn’t until this winter that North American firms got started using robots built by Robotics Cabling of Berlin-which acquired and upgraded Nippon Hume’s technology-as well as competing robots from Zrich-based KA-TE.

KA-TE’s robots prep sewers for fiber optics by fitting stainless-steel bands inside the sewer pipes and then clipping as many as nine stainless-steel conduits to the bands. Conventional cables with 144 fibers can then be blown under pressure into the conduits from street level-either immediately or later on, as neighborhood network demand grows.

In contrast, Robotics Cabling’s robots simply finish a job that humans start. Operators manually pull one or two custom cables through the pipes. Each of these cables carries 216 hair-thin glass strands sheathed in Kevlar and polyethylene to seal out hungry rodents and corrosive sewer gases. The robots then staple the cables to the pipe roof.

Toronto-based Stream Intelligent Networks is testing Robotics Cabling’s system in Toronto and is laying plans to deploy it across Canada, while CityNet is in full swing using KA-TE’s robotic systems to install fiber-optic cables in several U.S. cities, including Omaha, NE, Albuquerque, NM, and Indianapolis. Both firms are targeting bandwidth-hungry office buildings, whose 20- to 25-centimeter-wide sewer pipes accommodate today’s pint-sized robots.

Robot designers, on the other hand, are tackling the even smaller pipes and the tight turns that lead to individual homes. A residential campaign may be imminent: KA-TE says its researchers have already used robots to install fiber to three homes in Japan.

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