Quigley's 'Project Fox' still saving NBN Co money on fibre: Morrow

NBN Co has said that it is incorporating new fibre deployment methods to cut the cost and time of the rollout, which originated from an internal program known as Project Fox.

NBN Co will not abandon key cost- and time-saving methods for rolling out fibre to the premises developed in a program under the code name "Project Fox" by former CEO Mike Quigley, according to new CEO Bill Morrow.

Last week, NBN Co downplayed a report of an internal presentation of a trial of cost- and time-saving methods used in the Victorian suburb of Melton that saw the rollout completed in 104 days, with more than 90 percent of premises serviceable 61 percent faster and 50 percent cheaper than previous rollouts, according to a Fairfax report.

NBN Co didn't deny that cost-saving measures had been employed in the Melton trial, but said that such techniques are already being used by NBN Co elsewhere as part of an overall company-wide program to lower the cost of the rollout in a time when the company has been directed by the Coalition government to consider technologies other than fibre, including fibre to the node and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC), if those technologies are cheaper than installing fibre to the premises.

The cost-saving trials were developed beginning in 2012 as a finance and technology project code named "Finance Project Fox", designed to change the way that NBN Co designed and constructed the fibre network to significantly reduce the cost of the rollout. The project involved a number of NBN Co executives who have left the company since the change of government, and were presented to the NBN Co board on a number of occasions, one former employee of NBN Co who was closely involved with the project told ZDNet.

A document obtained by ZDNet outlining Finance Project Fox reveals a number of trials in reducing the size of the fibre, saving AU$315 per premises from reduced labour and installation time. This uses step change, and Render, an automated management project developed by former NBN Co head of construction, Dan Flemming.

Across eight fibre serving area modules (FSAMs) included in Project Fox, seven achieved time savings between 52 and 72 days in getting pits and pipes and the designs for an area ready for construction contracts to be issued to install the fibre.

nbn-cos-project-fox-cost-savings-not-abandoned-morrow
Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

Getting the Melton site ready for construction contracts to be issued was not as fast as some other areas, according to the document, with Campbelltown in New South Wales and Acacia Ridge in Queensland coming in on a shorter time frame than Melton.

The source said that after trials at 100 FSAMs, the step change in the preparation methods had saved money and time for both NBN Co and Telstra.

An additional saving, known as "Architecture 2.1" method involves using smaller cables, smaller fibre distribution hubs, and fewer splices, meaning that the time to install fibre into each premises is greatly reduced, and much less costly for NBN Co. The source said that this had not been included in the Melton trial but would save the company an additional 30 percent on costs.

NBN Co denied the accuracy of the document provided to ZDNet, insisting that Project Fox had ended in 2013, coinciding with the departure of much of the former executives of the company and some of the company's technology team. The company said it could not find a copy of the document in its records.

According to the source, NBN Co is not using the Architecture 2.1 designs, instead stating that the company took the decision to roll them back to the former fibre deployment method after the departure of chief operating officer Ralph Steffens, who was replaced by Greg Adcock.

This claim was denied by Morrow, however, who said that the savings of Project Fox are already being incorporated into an overall cost-reduction program in NBN Co. He also denied that NBN Co management is seeking to suppress any savings in rolling out fibre to justify the new government policy of using fibre to the node and HFC.

"That's completely untrue," Morrow told ZDNet.

"In order for us to stay in the AU$29.5 billion limit of equity funding, we have to find numerous efficiencies in how we deploy and how we operate. We have the entire company trying to find different opportunities to improve processes and change the way technology can help us to lower the cost."

Morrow confirmed that NBN Co is using the findings of Project Fox to reduce the cost of rolling out fibre to the premises today.

"On fibre to the premises, we're very focused on reducing its cost, so we're looking at things called skinny fibre. Working with our suppliers, we have identified savings where you run a single fibre to a particular home, and you [prepare] all the fibre splices in a factory, and you just roll it out in a pre-measured way to where these joints are in the pits," he said.

In addition to the changing the way that fibre is run in the pits and pipes, changes to the distribution layout, and a simplification of the design criteria, NBN Co is making a number of savings in the cost of how fibre to the premises is being rolled out.

"There's technology evolution that's occurring even in the cost of the glass, the way the sheathing is put together," Morrow said.

"Anything, and everything, we're pushing the envelope to try and reduce the costs."

While it is too early to say whether the Project Fox savings would lead to more Australians getting fibre to the premises, Morrow said that the cost savings that NBN Co has found so far will go a long way toward helping the company do more of fibre to the premises within the AU$29.5 billion funding envelope from the government.

"I would love to be able to find enough cost reductions in fibre to the premises, where we're doing more of that than of fibre to the node," he said.

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