Meet the Engineers
One sunny/rainy day (depending on when you looked out the window), we hitched a ride with some nice chaps from BT to go and meet some of the Openreach engineers who are working on the Connecting Shropshire project to bring fibre broadband to Salopians. (Fibre optic cable is being installed in parallel to the existing copper network, allowing digital information to be sent through glass fibres, reducing electrical resistance and increasing speeds).
First up we met Sam and Andy, working like beavers at the roadside near Cross Houses. After the introductions and seeing the little hole where they have all the cables (technical term, honest), we asked Sam what his main job was.
“I run the cabling from A to B.” He said. “Its four little tubes, inside a tube. So you can see here the box, and in between these boxes you have the ducts, and it’s through there we need to pull the tubing.”
As you can see from the diagram, the cables run between the boxes along ducts, and the only way to connect the fibre is to pull the tubing through from one box to the next. Since the beginning of the Connecting Shropshire programme, over 139 kilometres of fibre have been pulled through. It’s hard work. Engineers like Sam and Andy, need to hand rod up to 100 metres of cable to connect the two boxes.
“The target is 400-500 metres a day.” Sam explained. “Yesterday we didn’t manage as much, which is a bit disheartening. Some days it’s good and we can get 600-700 metres done. Which makes up for days like yesterday.”
The obvious question at this point was, what happened yesterday? Put simply, problems. Looking at the work they are doing, it’s not hard to see how challenging it can sometimes be. Following the flooding earlier this year, engineers have been hampered by flooded boxes and the silt and mud they leave behind.
“During the floods it wasn’t too bad actually,” Sam said. “Some of the boxes were flooded but we managed to work away from the lower ground where most the flooding was at the time.”
“If there’s snow on the ground it can make things much more difficult,” Andy added, “but we’ve been lucky this year.”
When the ground is frozen, opening up the boxes themselves can be a tricky and time-consuming task – it is this job of opening up the box that Andy is getting on with while we talk to Sam. However, while some boxes can prove troublesome for Andy to get into, it is the silt-clogged ducts after flooding that can delay the pair even more, Sam said.
“We were working up past Harmer Hill and up there when there’s a lot of rain the boxes are full of water. We’ve got pumps that we can pump the water out. We cabled two sections out of seven but five of them were covered in silt. So we had to get a jetter in and wash it all through.”
“It’s not an easy job.” Sam continued. “When it’s nice and the sun’s out and the job’s going well, it’s a good place to work. But if it’s cold, raining, the duct is flooded or blocked and work is slow… it’s obviously less enjoyable if I’m honest!”
Not only do the pair have to contend with the weather making their jobs harder at times, they also have to be wary of traffic – on busy roads like today, they can only work outside rush hour between 9:30am and 3:30pm when the traffic lights can be used.
Our time with the engineers is sadly nearly up as otherwise we’d be holding them back from doing their job, and given the competitive glint in Sam’s eyes when he talked about the targets we didn’t want to delay him too long. But before we left, we asked what the average day for them went like.
“We start at 6:30 in the morning then finish at 6:40.” Sam replied, quickly adding, “That’s night, not in the morning!”
Their 40 hour working week, sometimes made up of 12 hour days is not easy. Add on top of that the physical nature of the work and you suddenly feel a huge amount of respect for them. Both Sam and Andy genuinely seemed to be enjoying what they do, especially as round Shropshire when people see they are laying fibre broadband they get “excited and chatty”.
Long before the public see them, however, they work to load up the trailers going to “traffic sensitive areas” or head off to quieter, more rural areas to get a few hours of cabling done there before the 9:30am marker allows them to work on the busier roads. After the 3:30pm mark, they head back to quieter areas to make the most of the hours in the day.
The sound of the troublesome box hatch opening is our cue to leave them in peace and let them get on with the job in hand. As Sam clambers down into the box, we ask what he did before this.
“I used to work selling phones; it was quite different I can tell you!”
With that, Sam ducks inside the box to get to work while Andy gets the equipment they need for the next stage of the day’s work. It’s difficult to appreciate just what a huge task building the fibre network across Shropshire is but, piece by piece, the big build is taking shape.