by Stewart L. Deck

Pipe Dreams: Cabling Networks Through Underground Pipes

Feb 01, 20022 mins

Randolph Stark had a wiring dilemma. A year ago, he was looking for an inexpensive way to connect two buildings in New York City with a fiber-optic link. A dim memory clicked in?something about underground conduit tubes.

A bit of legwork and research at the New York Public Library, the post office and the Smithsonian confirmed that in the late 1890s, New York City was one of five U.S. cities that built pneumatic tube systems to help carry parcels of mail around town. Sifting through documents in the National Archives turned up the blueprints for New York City’s 27-mile system. Six months later, the 26-year-old Stark had patented the idea of installing fiber-optic cable in these 8-inch-diameter, cast-iron subterranean pipes. He estimates that what cost $4 million to build 100 years ago would now run close to $40 million, which makes his idea to use the already existing infrastructure fiscally attractive.

Until 1953, the pipes were leased by the post office from the private New York Mail and Newspaper Transportation Co. “The city still has a few questions about who owns them and is clarifying their legal status,”Stark says. Progress has been understandably delayed by the terrorist attacks last September.

Nevertheless, Stark’s company, Neutron Media, has been consulting with potential telecom partners on projects to lay the fiber-optic cabling in New York City. Stark also plans to take his idea to Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis (the other “tubed” cities in the United States) and then overseas. “Pneumatic tube systems are everywhere?in Paris, around Europe and in South America,” Stark says.