How the NBN rollout avoided sacred sites

Providing NBN coverage across areas such as Alice Springs and Broome involved circumventing Indigenous sacred sites, the company's chief network deployment officer has described.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN) has detailed the efforts it has gone to in order to avoid network construction disturbing Indigenous sacred areas, while still providing broadband to all corners of the nation.

Chief network deployment officer Kathrine Dyer said this involved ensuring around 9,000 homes in Alice Springs received NBN connections.

"Our approach in deploying the NBN in the lands of our First Peoples is something I'm particularly proud of," Dyer said at the annual Charles Todd Oration, which saw Vodafone Australia -- and soon possibly TPG, if the merger to form a AU$15 billion telco is approved -- CEO Inaki Berroeta win the 2018 Charles Todd Medal.

"Our planning and construction managers worked with the Aboriginal Area Protection Authority to map all the sacred sites in the area. There were approximately 600.

"This process armed our designers with the ability to find the best ways to lay a backbone of fibre cable across the whole town without damaging or disturbing sacred sites within the town boundaries."

Dyer, who previously served 17 years at Telstra including in the greenfield fibre development team, said the rollout through Yawuru country in Broome then involved network delivery partner WBHO bringing on board a local elder as a "cultural liaison officer".

"His role was to educate and support our construction team and ensure alignment between cultural and heritage issues raised by the Yawuru People and solutions proposed by NBN and our delivery partner," she explained.

"This is the reality of deploying the network in some of the most culturally sensitive parts of our country."

Other rollout challenges have included NBN having to bore under waterways, including in Scotts Head and Warrell Creek, and to bypass protected wetlands; using specialised ploughs to dig trenches across farms and vineyards; using rock saws to cut rocks apart; and having to build backhaul between Mona Vale and French's Forest through the area where the NSW government is currently constructing its Northern Beaches Hospital.

"Working with our delivery partner Visionstream, we had complex utility relocations, submarine hauls, aerial crossings over national parks, and heavy traffic near the construction zones," she said.

Dyer additionally spoke of the challenges in maintaining a workforce for the last two years of the network build, including over NBN's new fibre-to-the-curb (FttC) network.

"In the early days of the FttP rollout, there were not enough experienced fibre technicians; with the FttN rollout, there was a shortage of skilled copper resources; with the deployment at scale of FttC, we are seeing civil resource contention in certain states," she revealed.

According to Dyer, there is a high level of "industry contention for civil resources" in both NSW and Victoria, where much of the FttC footprint is now being constructed.

"This is mainly a function of there being a vast number of infrastructure projects in construction, which is giving civil resourcing subcontractors multiple opportunities," she explained.

"As an example, when we are trying to attract civil resources, we may be able to give a contractor two weeks' worth of drilling. That location would most likely be in an urbanised area with high traffic and parking constraints.

"Contrast this with that same team being offered a three-month contract on a major road construction project without the same level of traffic and safety considerations. This is an example of a constraint we are managing closely as we move into the final years of the rollout to ensure we maintain the workforce we need."

NBN in August revealed in its 2019-22 Corporate Plan that it is expecting a base case funding of AU$51 billion, with the rollout to be complete by June 2020.

The company plans to have 9.9 million premises ready for service (RFS), 9.7 million ready to connect (RTC), and 5.5 million activated by FY19; 11.6 million RFS and RTC and 7.5 million activated by FY20; 11.7 million RFS and RTC and 8.4 million activated by FY21; and 11.9 million RFS and RTC and 8.7 million activated by FY22.

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