The gentle hum of suburbia is broken by the grunts of a 2-ton digger edging past a Jacaranda tree. A wary Telstra site manager looks out for trouble - he knows just one accidental twitch could send the mechanical beast charging through flowerbeds onto headlines around the country.
This is Brunswick, Victoria – home to what is arguably the most important test site for the National Broadband Network in Australia.
ARN has been given exclusive permission to go behind the scenes of the first release sites around Australia, but this collaborative work with Telstra as the contractor is one of the most keenly anticipated.
If both parties can finish Brunswick on time and budget, it sets a precedent and template for the rest of Australia. With Telstra set to sign on the dotted line and watch its ducts get rented out, this project will decide if it’ll be a smooth transaction or a painful, lawyered-up process.
NBN Co construction manager, Mike Grant, is the company’s man in the field for the Brunswick rollout. He’s a true believer with an eye on the big picture and would like to see as much of Australia rolled out with Telstra as possible.
“It’s relatively easy [to get consistency] because we have a contractor in Brunswick that understands the construction, design and quality requirements and that’s the secret to it,” he said. “Any issues we’ve found on this site have been resolved in minutes.
“The Telstra agreement that’s been negotiated is really important for both parties. If you see other places where they’ve had to do new pipe construction, it’s harder and more difficult,” he said. “If we can get our modelling and forecasts right here, we can use it at all the other sites.”
Grant’s occupational health and safety (OH&S) rundown features unique challenges found only in Brunswick. Substandard sidewalks and empty pits are a danger, as is stepping into traffic and encountering road rage from frustrated drivers.
Recycling Telstra for the NBN
The art deco Telstra exchange that acts as the project’s HQ is a world away from central Melbourne, where NBN Co’s main office occupies the 40th and 41st floors in a gleaming steel and glass edifice. Once staffed by a small army of workers, it was all but abandoned when automation made their jobs redundant.
Telstra project director, Ben Systermans, and his entire staff now work in what was once the Exchange’s employee tea room along with two NBN Co liaison officers.
Systermans is one of the most experienced project managers available at the telco giant and has a detailed knowledge of the Brunswick plan. He’s worked on the Commonwealth Games village, large private networks and State-based emergency service rollouts.
“We get up to 100 people working on the project at once when flat out,” he said. “We’re doing pits and pipe work, which is replacing pits we need to replace and placing additional underground conduits.
“We’re covering around 2600 premises and about 26 multiple-dwelling units here. That is then broken up into 13 smaller fibre distribution areas of 200 premises.
“From here it goes to a Point of Interconnect using backhaul fibre… and that’s where Internet Service Providers [ISP] can get into a network.”
The lower floors of the exchange are a perfect example of tech consolidation in action over time. In a long concrete room big enough to fit two trucks is a bank of old-school physical line connections – tens of thousands of tiny copper cables lined up in racks so tall a ladder is needed to reach the top.
Then comes a smaller room half the size of the first filled with the next step up; Alcatel-Lucent S12 voice switches in cream cabinets. Finally, in a small space just wide enough to fit a Queen-size bed, is the future location of the NBN’s Fibre Access node.
Pits and pipes
You may not know what a pit is by name, but you’ve definitely seen them all your life. Small concrete ovals or rectangles embedded into footpaths sit at regular intervals along the street. Beneath these covers are boxes linked directly to the copper and fibre cables with the equipment needed to plug a house into the network.
Out on the streets Telstra project manager, Matthew Taylor, manages half of Brunswick rollout. He says the old style of pit is too small to handle NBN Co’s equipment and that more than 550 must be dug up and replaced by the newer boxes.
One of Taylor’s many tasks is to make sure traffic management goes smoothly. With so much digging, drilling and road closure going on, home-owners often find themselves entirely marooned for hours at a time.
“The guys have already told residents we’re cutting of this area of footpath and if they need to get out they yell out and our traffic management makes a clear passage and takes them through,” he said. “They’ve also had prior warning...there’s a weekly ad in the paper and we’ve actually done two letter drops in the area.
“Because we’ve done the letter drop people are complaining to us and leaving the council out of it, which they like because they don’t want the phone calls,” Taylor added. “We’ve had the odd complaint about noise, but we’re going to get that because there’s a fair bit of noise going around – especially when the rock breaker gets going.”
As ARN walked through the sites where new pits have been installed, Telstra contractors were opening dozens up to attach tags with construction dates. More than 40 were completed before the tagging idea became standard practice so each and every one was being re-opened in two man operations.
But while simple tagging and noise-ridden neighbours are bothersome, more serious problems have cropped up during the NBN rollout.
“The issue with this area here is they’ve encountered a lot of rock as they cut the trenches and they’ve now got the excavator digging. It’s been really, really bad,” Taylor said. “Normally we’d have a directional drill and it would do half the street in one day…the problem is the minute you hit a rock it goes off on a different angle and because there are so many services here…it can actually move off to the side and cut some of them.”
Old pits are often made with asbestos, requiring specially trained workers wearing full-body suits and head gear. Other dangers include drug users dropping syringes into keyholes, which require a second cover to prevent workers being accidentally pricked.
Despite the letter drops, newspaper ads and doorknock visits, many locals ARN spoke to had no idea the extensive rollout was for the NBN. Many assumed it was for road maintenance while others didn’t care.
Café owner and operator, Tod Myles, has run La Paloma for over six years and makes a sandwich the locals love. He’s also a resident and enjoys the prospect of faster Internet, but notes his business has no wired connection of any kind.
“It’s not going to affect my business in any way,” Myles said. “It did affect business when they closed the street down [but] it was all done in one day … it’s not worth $43 billion to me, but then nothing is.
“They also cut off my phone line for a week before Telstra realised.”
But as he works on churros, rolls and friendly banter with his regular customers in a store that doesn’t even have an Eftpos machine, Myles remains relatively neutral on the NBN without a strong opinion for or against the project.
Still, he’s wary of biased journalists and their anti-NBN views. According to Myles, the last time he spoke to a writer from The Age they quoted a local character known as “The Bird Man” because of his penchant for wandering about wearing feathers and produced a negative article against the Government’s plan.
“It’s going to give me faster movies,” Myles said after hearing some of the arguments for and against. “And that’s always good.”