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Tropical tech: IT challenges in remote communities

Operating and maintaining the sensitive IT equipment in Australia's tropical far north can be a challenging undertaking, but NEC Australia has worked out a way to keep things running for some of Australia's most remote communities.
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By Leon Spencer, Journalist on
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1 of 20 Leon Spencer/ZDNet

For a remote island community thousands of kilometres away from the nearest metropolis, in a climate where tropical storms cut power with seasonal regularity, and switching off the air conditioning leaves hardware to "go green" from encroaching humidity, it can be a tall order keeping technology operational.

However, this is precisely the duty with which NEC Australia field services technician Garry Lockyer has been tasked.

Lockyer, who is a graduate of the company's training and apprenticeship program, spends most of his time leapfrogging all over Australia's sparsely populated Northern Territory (NT) in small planes, keeping the territory government's IT infrastructure in isolated areas running.

NEC Australia, which claims to be the largest IT services provider to the NT government, holds an AU$34.6 million three-year contract to be the primary IT vendor for the NT Department of Education's service desk and infrastructure.

In June last year, the Japanese technology company also announced that it had extended three NT government contracts: A network management contract, voice network management contract, and desktop and server support contract.

Given the Northern Territory's thinly spread population — the Australia Bureau of Statistics says it contains fewer than 245,000 people in a landmass twice the size of Texas — NEC Australia has had to take some unique steps in order to fulfil its contract obligations.

One of the steps taken by the company was to partner with air services provider Vertical Technology Group (VTG), which has a fleet of six small aircraft, to get its technicians out to remote locations on a regular basis.

NEC Australia and VTG announced their three-year partnership contract in late February. The air services company established itself in 2013, off the back of former IT services provider CSG's Technology Solutions business, which NEC Australia acquired in 2012 for AU$227.5 million.

CSG had owned and operated four small planes to service outlying areas, but these were not taken on by NEC Australia in the acquisition, leaving them for VTG to operate and maintain. The company now claims six aeroplanes in its roster.

VTG's services are critically vital to NEC Australia's business in the NT, with the combined fleet collectively covering massive distances each day, delivering technicians to remote communities far and wide throughout the Northern Territory's 1.4 million square kilometre spread, much of which cannot be easily reached by ground transport.

One of the settlements visited on a regular basis by VTG and NEC Australia technicians is the indigenous community of Milikapiti, which is located on the Tiwi Islands, more than 100 kilometres north of the NT capital, Darwin.

The Milikapiti community, comprised of around 500-600 people, is situated at Snake Bay on the northern coastline of Melville Island, the eastern-most member of the Tiwi Islands. It is a scattered hamlet with a smattering of streets laid over loose earth, neatly nestled in between tracts of brush and the clear blue waters of the Timor Sea.

Although the water is warm and inviting, it's extremely rare to see locals swimming, thanks to the dual dangers of incapacitation by the stinging jellyfish or consumption by the ubiquitous saltwater crocodiles. In Australia's tropical northern reaches, those privileges are usually reserved for unwitting tourists, not locals.

Like most of the NT's government-operated educational institutions, the school at Milikapiti employs a variety of hardware — laptops, PCs, Wi-Fi routers, and network cabinets — in order to facilitate the students' learning and to help it maintain contact with the territory's education network.

However, the island is dependent on diesel generators for electricity, and is not infrequently battered by monsoon winds, along with sudden storms during the rainy season.

It is also subject to somewhat tenuous telecommunications contact with the mainland, as the school's NT government Satellite to All Remote Sites (STARS) network satellite dish can be adversely affected by both bandwidth congestion and inclement weather.

With teachers and community members who frequently know only the basics of using and operating IT systems, the only way to keep on top of the infrastructure in such communities is to fly technicians like Lockyer out to tend the equipment in person.

"Most problems are hardware problems, which I rather like to deal with," Lockyer told ZDNet during a visit to the Milikapiti community.

Milikapiti's public school, which is deftly managed by teaching principal Suzanne Brogan, claims a small raft of technology hardware, including about 20 to 30 laptops, several iPads, a couple of PCs, a network of Cisco Wi-Fi routers, a number of connected smart boards, a multifunction device, and dozens of the One Laptop Per Child XO computers.

All of these devices are linked back to a 6-foot-tall central network cabinet, which stands silently blinking in the school's air-conditioned staffroom, and contains a server, a core switch, an uninterrupted power supply backup, and an iDirect satellite router.

Lockyer's job when he's in town is to make sure all of this is working properly. Over the course of the weeks between visits, Brogan logs any IT problems through an online issues log interface, and also writes each issue down in a notebook for the visiting technician to check off manually.

The reason why Brogan uses traditional pen and paper in addition to the online interface in order to log issues is purely pragmatic — it allows the technicians to get on with what needs to be done without interrupting her while she's teaching classes, and, most importantly, it also works pretty well when the electricity's out.

"Sometimes, a power outage or an internet outage can interrupt our communications," said Brogan. "It can take our equipment offline, as well as the community's ATM, and the card payment terminal at the [community food shop]."

Brogan said that outages can also interrupt classes, but the school has always got a plan B in place, so teachers can get on with a class without the use of computers or an internet connection — or electricity.

An outage can be very disruptive to the students, and this strategy allows the school to continue teaching, despite not having the aid of online education platforms, such as the government's Remote Education and Conferencing Tool (REACT).

However, between visits, when the power and telecommunications lines are working, Brogan and the other teachers are able to keep in touch with NEC Australia's service desk via NEC Australia's new iCentre online checkpoint portal, which was launched in mid October in partnership with the NT Department of Education after a limited trial period.

"The iCentre alleviates a lot of service desk time, and it's easier to use than the previous system, so the teachers and the principal can use it," said Lockyer. "There's been a good uptake, and people are using it. It was on trial for a couple of weeks, and then the general launch allowed notifications to become active in the system.

"Part of our job at the moment is to teach all the principals and teachers how to use the system," he said.

Naturally, the new system only works as long as the communications infrastructure works, and, according to VTG's managing director Mark Sweet, that prospect can sometimes be a tall order in Australia's remote far north.

"Some of the biggest challenges we face doing this job is the humidity and the dust; it impacts on the technology," said Sweet. "The challenges here, such as power failure, make the first-level and second-level help desk service very important. Most communities operate with diesel generators — all the diesel is shipped in."

Sweet said that one of the biggest challenges in the region is the effect that humidity can have on the IT hardware, which can cause it to "go green". This is made particularly problematic in the wet season, when power is cut prior to, or during, tropical storms, leaving hardware without an air-conditioned environment in which to operate.

"The government Education Department's satellite network STARS can also be slow," he said. "STARS Net buys bandwidth and uses it for download, with the internet lines often used for upload. However, some communities only use satellite, so congestion and latency can be a problem, and the STARS dishes can also be affected by rain fade in the wet season."

Sweet, who has also done time as general manager for Telstra Countrywide, said that although there is a communications cable running from the mainland, much of its capacity is used up by the time it gets to Milikapiti by the community of Nguiu, on the southern coast of Bathurst Island — the western-most Tiwi Island.

Despite the difficulties, however, Sweet has seen first-hand how effective the technology can be in assisting student learning in the schools, with a marked improvement in levels of literacy and numeracy skills among the community's children.

"That's why this technology is so good," he said. "They're texting on phones, and messaging on iPads. Teachers have told me that these kids are learning how to write through text-based skills. They're actually learning to read with phones and tablets and computers."

With school principals like Brogan making the most of the operational IT gear, and new plans by the NT government to shore up consistent power with an AU$55 million solar power infrastructure rollout for at least 30 remote communities, the children of Milikapiti, and others like them across the territory, are set to reap the fruits of NEC Australia and VTG's combined labours.

For NEC Australia, the challenge to keep these systems running is worth the work involved — and not just for the immediate economic benefits of the lucrative NT government contracts it holds.

NEC Australia managing director Tetsuro Akagi told ZDNet that the company's success in fulfilling its contracts with the NT government will likely position it well to win similar contracts with other state governments, as well as the federal government.

"Based on our track record here, we can expand in the other states, like South Australia and Western Australia. I think the governments exchange information on tenders and the companies involved," he said

Leon Spencer travelled to Darwin as a guest of NEC Australia.

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NEC Australia managing director Tetsuro Akagi befriends a Northern Territorian snake during the 52nd Australia-Japan Joint Business Conference in Darwin.

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The indigenous community of Milikapiti, on the Northern Territory's Tiwi Islands, from the air.

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The tropical Tiwi Islands, off Australia's far north coast, over 100 kilometres from Darwin.

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The Milikapiti public school has dozens of the One Laptop Per Child project's XO computers.

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Milikapiti students studying on Dell laptops and iPads.

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The school's NT government Satellite to All Remote Sites (STARS) network dish.

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Milikapiti public school teaching principal Suzanne Brogan (L) with NEC Australia field services technician Garry Lockyer.

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Headphones used for the school's iPads hanging in the library.

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The Milikapiti public school's playground overlooks the sea, which is populated by stinging jellyfish and crocodiles.

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Students working on iPads and listening to music.

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Students using one of the school's connected Smart Boards.

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Question and answer time at the school, in front of the classroom's connected Smart Board.

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NEC Australia field services technician Garry Lockyer checking the school's IT system.

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One of the Milikapiti community's main streets.

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Downtown Milikapiti.

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VTG chief pilot Steve Bolle with one of the six light planes in VTG's fleet, used to service the territory's remote communities.

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Milikapiti public school's staffroom and library building.

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VTG's chief pilot Steve Bolle, flying from the Milikapiti community on Melville Island back to Darwin.

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One of VTG's NEC-branded aeroplanes in its six-plane fleet.

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