Nextgen's Regional Backbone Blackspots Program (RBBP) is being run from its fibre-optic broadband centre of excellence in Mulgrave, near Monash University in Melbourne's south-east. The facility employs more than 100 of what Peter McGrath, group managing director of Leighton's telecommunications division, called "high-value and technically specialised employees", managing everything from design, land access, planning, heritage issues, cultural issues, and more.
The RBBP network is on target to begin offering live ADSL2+ services to customers in Geraldton, WA; Victor Harbor, SA; and south-west Gippsland, Victoria by March 2011 while customers on longer sections reaching areas like Darwin; Broken Hill; South Australia's Riverland; Emerald and Longreach; and Victoria's Riverina are expected to be live by September 2011.
"We've already signed pre-committed RBBP sales contracts with some of Australia's largest ISPs [internet service providers]," McGrath said.
"The ISPs are out there and jumping on board; they're keen to not only support this initiative, but they can see that it's structured commercially to make sense for them, and they're looking to move into a number of regional areas and offer services... We offer these services on an open access, wholesale-only basis and we set pricing that is extremely competitive in the market — and lower than any pricing that has been seen in these areas before."
Stephen Conroy was noticeably chuffed at the network's smooth roll-out to date. "This demonstrates that the Gillard Government is getting on with delivering the National Broadband Network for all Australians, no matter where they live," he said.
"In previous generations the delivery of rail and telegraph heralded a new era in connectedness for regional and remote Australians. In the 21st century the delivery of optical fibre backbone links heralds an opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all... The RBBP is delivering the first building blocks of the NBN on mainland Australia."
McGrath was full of praise for the workers involved in the RBBP, noting that despite over 500,000 man-hours worked to date, the project has not had a single Lost Time Incident.
"That's quite an amazing achievement," he said. "Many people are working in isolated and dangerous locations, and we have protocols in place and do things like have a start-of-day meeting everyday so work scope is clear and any issues are identified early on."
The offices of Visionstream are committed to the RBBP, with staff grouped into a range of project areas that include everything from technical fibre roll-out design to drafting, route survey, safety monitors, environmental impact assessment, and more.
Cultural concerns are a major part of the project, with a dedicated team handling negotiations with indigenous organisations and tribal councils.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of sacred sites we've got to avoid," said project director Jeff Sharp. "We have monitors with the construction crews to make sure we do the right thing." Nextgen has also boosted indigenous employment through a deal that has seen indigenous workers comprise 10 per cent of the project's 500-strong full-time workforce.
Every centimetre of the route is planned in great detail, ensuring that the network respects the many operating parameters within which it's operating.
The roll-out of the fibre throughout rural areas has been greeted warmly, according to Sharp. "Wherever we go, everyone's just applauding us," he says. "They really are keen."
In each town the RBBP fibre passes, Nextgen installs a BPOI (Broadband Point of Interconnect) cabinet near the local Telstra exchange that hosts ADSL2+-capable DSLAMs (DSL Access Modules) to allow ISPs to deliver broadband to local residents. NEC subsidiary Nextep is the first into each Nextgen-delivered BPOI, but the open-access, government-owned infrastructure will be equally available to any interested ISP.
The cable being laid bundles a large number of fibre-optic strands, with extensive protective sheathing. Specialised "rippers" dig a trench 1 metre deep, into which the cable is laid by a plough. The plough lays it into place through a chute.
"This is high-strength cable," Sharp says. It takes around a month to lay 100km of cable, with project teams and support offices moving along the route in jumps of approximately 300km.
Large construction teams are "self-sufficient", Sharp said, but safety monitors in the RBBP project office continually communicate with individual field staff, many of whom are working in some of the country's most remote areas, to ensure they're alive and well. This includes manual procedures like thrice-daily phone calls, and more sophisticated measures such as this system, which tracks vehicle positions in real time.
If a car stops moving for too long, the system sounds an alert that is actioned by local staff. If staff leave their cars, they clip a safety device onto their belt clips; if they stop moving for too long, the device sounds an alarm, which is transmitted back to base via the satellite phone installed in each car.
The office houses "thousands and thousands" of drawings, said Sharp, with Google Earth and CAD applications among the tools of the trade.
The milestone bell gets rung every time the project team reaches a major milestone — and that's not just distance based, as with this week's halfway announcement. Other ring-worthy milestones include finishing a fibre section, getting access to land, issuing detailed planning drawings for a new segment, installing a BPOI cabinet, and more.
"It rang four times yesterday," said Sharp. "If you're stuck on a computer all day and tapping away, you really don't get a feel for how we're achieving things. This way, everyone knows."