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A faster way to fast fiber internet – microtrenching explained

A digital rendering of a tractor pulling a microtrenching machine through a neighborhood

When? 

That’s the number one question we get. When will you come to my town? When will fiber be in my neighborhood? When can I get fast, reliable fiber internet installed? When can I finally tell my old copper internet service provider where to go?

In other words, how soon can you get here?

With microtrenching, the answer is “much sooner than would be possible using traditional fiber network construction techniques.” So let’s talk about microtrenching: How it works, why it’s better and faster and why it’s the best option for all involved.

What is microtrenching?

Microtrenching is a fiber network construction technique that lays the protective conduit that houses the fiber strands below and at the side of a roadway. It requires much less digging and much less disruption than other network building methods.

How microtrenching works 

Using a specialized tool called (wait for it) a microtrencher, a 1.5 to 2-inch wide slot is cut close to where the curb meets the road surface. This slot is 12 to 16 inches deep so the conduit that houses the fiber strands won’t be disturbed. 

A close up of the microtrenching blade cutting a slot into the roadway

After the trench is cut and the conduit laid, the trench is filled in and finished to closely match the surface of the roadway. The trench is filled to just short of flush with the existing surface with a strong, yet flexible bonding cement compound. Next, a special flexible sealant is placed on top of the trench to seal the surface from water intrusion. Because details matter, Ting Internet matches the color of the sealant, as closely as possible, to the existing road surface. 

All this happens in one operation; as the construction crew moves forward, their work is rendered all but invisible behind them. There’s no road work or resurfacing required after the Ting Internet crew has moved on… and the Ting Internet crew moves pretty quickly.

A microtrenching machine filling in the slot left behind by the slot cutter

The result is a conduit safely and securely buried, fiber that’s ready to be branched off to homes and businesses and a road surface that is undisturbed, as solid and strong as it was before we started.

Filling the trench

We go to great lengths to ensure the filled trench matches the road surface as closely as possible. You may notice a temporary fill (see “temporary fill” below) that does not match the road surface. This is not representative of how the finished product will look. Temporary fill is only used to protect the trench in advance of the permanent fill.

Once the permanent fill is in place, there may still be a visible contrast with the pavement (see “permanent fill” below). This contrast will become much more subtle with time (see “finished fill” below).

Later, when a city or town does resurface the road because of normal wear and tear, they can do so without worrying about the fiber safely buried beneath. Bonus: when the road is resurfaced, the fiber trench goes from all but invisible to literally invisible.

What’s the alternative to microtrenching? 

Other methods for installing fiber optic cables in an underground build are traditional construction practices that involve a lot of hard work with some pretty heavy equipment. The tools of the traditional network construction trade are backhoes, directional boring machines and pneumatic missiles. 

In fact, the only thing older construction methods have over microtrenching is cool names like “pneumatic missile.” While the Ting Internet team always does its best to leave things exactly as we found them, traditional construction is by its nature more invasive and disruptive. 

Where microtrenching is an option, it’s almost always the best option. 

An overhead view of a microtrenching crew moving through a neighborhood

Why is microtrenching better?

It’s faster

Speed is perhaps the biggest benefit of microtrenching over older construction methods. A microtrenching team can install up to 3,000 feet of conduit in one day. Traditional construction maxes out at about 500 feet per day.

That means network builds measured in months instead of years. In turn, that means more fiber in more neighborhoods in less time, so we can move on to connecting individual homes, buildings and businesses much faster.

It’s more efficient

Microtrenching is also more efficient in a host of ways. It requires less physical work, for one. It’s also much less disruptive; any traffic lane closures are measured in hours instead of days and crews can be in and out of a neighborhood in days as opposed to weeks or months. 

For another, the microtrenching machines clean up after themselves, collecting excavated material for safe disposal.

It’s future-proof

Fiber is infrastructure for the next 100 years. With microtrenching, the protective conduit that houses the tiny fiber strands is safely buried under the roadway. Municipalities can resurface the road without disturbing the conduit.

In other words, microtrenching is not a temporary fix, and, done properly, it doesn’t sacrifice longevity for build speed.

It’s less expensive

Building fiber networks is expensive. There is a calculable cost per foot of fiber laid and per home or premises passed.

Since it’s faster and more efficient, microtrenching is also less expensive. It’s obvious why we, as the ones building or partnering to build the network, would count this as a plus. For Ting Towns and their citizens, the benefit is that we are able to lay considerably more fiber for the same cost, which means we’re able to reach more homes and businesses.

More than that, though, neighborhoods that might not have been practical to reach in the first construction phases (if ever) with traditional construction become feasible with new numbers in the “cost” column.

Why not just use microtrenching exclusively?

We might if it were only up to us, for all the reasons outlined above and more. We’re working to help Ting Towns, both present and future, to better understand microtrenching, how it works and the benefits to the community.

What can I do?

If you agree that microtrenching is a path forward and you think our argument is sound, share it with your local leadership. If you disagree or have thoughts to share, we’d love to hear them in the comments below.