The UK’s Underground Infrastructure Is Better Protected Than Ever

The UK’s Underground Infrastructure Is Better Protected Than Ever

71 percent of all digging work that takes place in the UK is now preceded by a thorough search for pipes and cables, according to Digging Up Britain 2020.  The report by LSBUD, which provides a free to use, online asset search facility, reveals that a record 2,832,027 enquiries were registered on its collaborative portal in 2019, a 10 percent increase on the previous year, and almost double that of just five years ago. In essence, a search was placed every 3.7 seconds during a typical working day.

Richard Broome, Managing Director of LSBUD, comments: “We have reached a ‘tipping point’ in terms of safe digging – both for the UK’s underground pipes and cables, and those who dig near them. Our data suggests asset searching on the LSBUD portal has rapidly become second nature for people. It’s now a standard step in the vast majority of excavation projects. This is clearly very good news for asset owners such as telecoms companies as the last thing they need is a spade or digger hitting their networks.”

Telecoms companies were the most active users of the LSBUD service in 2019. Of the 2.8 million searches, telecoms operators and their contractors were responsible for 911,455, some 32 percent of the total. 

The large amount of activity within the telecoms sector is likely due to the ambitious targets put in place by Theresa May and her Government, who promised 15 million homes to be connected to full-fibre broadband by 2025, and a nationwide network to be in place by 2033. Boris Johnson continued this pledge, stating he wanted ‘gigabit-capable broadband’ nationwide by 2025, as well as a clear industry focus on 5G rollout.

Richard Broome adds: “Given these ambitions at Government-level, I think it is fair to say telecoms will continue to top the charts in terms of searches for a while to come.”

Whilst the telecoms sector conducted 3.5 percent more searches, its share of the overall pie fell by two percent.  This is due to a major surge in usage of the portal by private individuals, whose searches increased by 10 percent in just 12 months. There was also a 42 percent jump in agricultural projects. This suggests that the awareness of safe digging practices is growing not just among core construction and contractor communities but also amongst the wider general public.

Digging Up Britain 2020 also identifies a change in asset owners’ behaviour. 2019 saw more telecoms and other utility companies using the data generated by the portal to manage risk, futureproof their networks, and better identify areas of potential weakness. Utilities are increasingly using historical data to predict who is likely to work within the vicinity of their network, the type of work they are going to do, when they are going to do it and the exact locations.

“Risk management is a critical activity within a modern utility, and our data appears to be playing an important role in this”, adds Richard Broome.

Digging Up Britain 2020 not only analyses the volumes but also the type of digging work taking place. It reports that ‘emergency searches’ increased by 59 percent on the previous year and 197 percent on two years ago with 316,922 searches deemed as urgent in 2019.  

This trend is not an issue for the LSBUD collaborative portal, which deals with search requests in minutes, but it may present a challenge to asset owners such as telecoms companies handling search enquiries themselves. Some can often take up to 28 days to provide information about their networks. The increase in ‘emergency’ requests will put huge pressure on these timescales and the companies’ enquiry teams.

Digging Up Britain 2020 also outlines the type of work which is taking place. Similar to previous years, utility works top the list with more than 2.15 million searches, a six percent jump on last year. In addition to the rise in agricultural activity, highways projects grew by 17 percent in 2019, prompting 421,452 searches.  Searches for domestic building projects were up by 54 percent. Planning applications also saw an enormous jump, increasing by 825 percent.

Richard Broome concludes: “Clearly there’s a lot of excavation activity taking place right across the country, but the good news is that this is routinely accompanied by a thorough search before a spade hits the ground. We’ve enquiries going through the portal every few seconds. So, I’d urge any telecoms companies who have yet to do so, to make sure their own assets are visible in these millions of searches by sharing their information through the collaborative portal.”

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