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Digital highway: ‘Once in a generation’ engineering work turns Forth Road Bridge into fibre internet link

© OpenreachWorkers on the Forth Road Bridge project
Workers on the Forth Road Bridge project

Once the primary route for vehicles heading between Edinburgh and Fife, the Forth Road Bridge is being prepared to carry traffic of a different kind.

The bridge, opened in 1964, is to become a digital highway carrying fibre cable to allow ultrafast internet access in South Queensferry, the town which lies in its shadow.

Since the opening of the Queensferry Crossing in 2017, use of the Category A listed structure has largely been limited to public transport, pedestrians and cyclists.

On Wednesday, engineers are set to use a giant air compressor to blow a continuous, 3km stretch of glass fibre right across the bridge at speeds of up to 60 metres per minute.

It’s the peak of a two-week project, six months in the planning, which has seen engineers work in enclosed steel tunnels under the bridge’s footpaths to prepare ducts for the new fibre link.

The new 16mm fibre cable – containing 432 tiny glass fibres each a tenth the size of a human hair – will deliver gigabit-capable internet services to thousands of residents and businesses on the south side of the estuary.

Work on the new, ultra-reliable network has already started in South Queensferry – one of more than 260 communities across Scotland set to benefit from Openreach’s nationwide five-year, full fibre upgrade.

Openreach Scotland board chair Katie Milligan called it a “once in a generation engineering task” which will bring the iconic landmark and UNESCO world heritage site into a new digital era.

She said: “This is a unique moment for civil engineering in Scotland as two huge infrastructure projects come together. We’re building a new ultrafast digital highway – and going across the Forth Road Bridge is the fastest, most direct way to get it done.

“It’s impossible to join up spans of fibre on the Bridge, so it has to be done in one long piece. It’s amazing to think that these tiny fibres will future-proof the internet for thousands of homes and businesses on the south side of the Bridge for decades to come.

“This is a once-in-a-generation engineering task to make broadband fit for the future, and we’re proud to be literally bridging the digital divide across this iconic landmark.”

In addition to the work on the bridge itself, engineers have built another 2km of fibre to the north approach, with the new network linking back to a main fibre hub in Inverkeithing, Fife.

Milligan added: “As we saw during lockdown, good connectivity reduces pressures on our road network, and can cut emissions, by giving many Scots the ability to work where they live. It’s great to see the iconic Forth Road Bridge play a part in a new, digital era which, like the Bridge itself, will serve Scotland for generations.”

Chris Tracey, Unit Bridges Manager for BEAR Scotland, which is responsible for the road bridges and has worked closely with Openreach to plan the project, said: “We were pleased to facilitate safe access on the Forth Road Bridge for Openreach to carry out this major upgrade, and we look forward to the benefits it will bring to local residents and businesses.”