Behind the scenes of connecting a continent

9-minute read
With the initial build of the nbn™ network now complete^, we go behind the scenes to explore what it takes to bring connectivity to a continent. From milestone moments, to stories of complex connections, to the big numbers of the rollout, we speak with nbn’s Chief Operations Officer Kathrine Dyer as she reflects on the last 10 years.

If there’s someone who knows a lot about the ins and the outs of the nbn™ network, and of rolling it out across the 7.692 million square kilometres that make up Australia, it’s Kathrine Dyer.

A veteran of 10 years at nbn, until recently, Kathrine served as Chief Network Deployment Officer, overseeing all aspects of network deployment as we worked to complete the initial rollout^.

With the initial build now complete, and some complex connections ongoing^, Kathrine steps into the role of Chief Operations Officer to ensure we build and service a quality network that provides an outstanding experience for premises across Australia.

Here, we take the opportunity for a quick chat with Kathrine to reflect on the rollout…

The standout moments

“The most rewarding challenges have often also been the most difficult, like the Sydney Markets.

“This was a place of business that operates 24/7 and the existing network was all direct-buried and had multiple points of entry.

“We had to work out how to connect more than 200 businesses to the nbn™ network. We really had to employ the Multi Technology Mix, do night works, build the market in sections, and be very aware of the health and safety obligations because of the forklifts and heavy traffic running around.

“So, the way we worked with some of our customers to solve some really complex problems was really satisfying.”

Kathrine Dyer, Chief Operations Officer (front) and Debbie Taylor, Chief Information Officer, on a visit in the field.

“Another one that has been front of mind recently has been the beautiful Moreton Bay Islands in Queensland. It’s a stunning part of the world but the terrain was incredibly difficult to work within.

“We had to build undersea cables to connect those islands. The sheer size and magnitude of this project, having to collaborate with our delivery partners and customers to make sure we had all the right heritage approvals in place... It was very, very complex in delivering the build to those types of premises.”

Moreton Bay Islands.

More about Moreton Bay Islands

The islands to connect: North Stradbroke Island, Russell Island, Karragarra Island, Macleay Island and Coochiemudlo Island.

The number of premises to connect to the nbnnetwork: approximately 9,000.

The challenges included: working within the protected Moreton Bay Marine Park; ensuring sites of cultural significance to traditional custodians, the Quandamooka people, were identified, managed and treated accordingly.

“One more example of a complex build would be the massive team effort to get Broken Hill’s premises ready to connect to the nbn™ network. 

“They invested a lot of time to innovate and overcome so many challenges, including drilling through hard rock and minerals, deploying our South Australian teams to cover the distance in a geographically remote location, and undergoing heritage approvals. I was so proud of all the teams involved working together to get the job done.

Broken Hill.

“And not only did the nbn build represent some of the most significant and complex civil construction challenges, it also came with the realities of rolling out a network across a vast country with abundant wildlife ranging from the cute to the creepy-crawly.

“In the field, there were many local challenges to think about and overcome – snakes, spiders and rats in pits were commonly encountered by some of our field staff! You learn very quickly to put your pants in your boots and walk in a really noisy way during the summer season!”

Bringing Broken Hill into the nbn™ fold

The population: Approximately 17,000 people call Australia’s first heritage listed city home.

The challenges included: more than 380 individual items of state and local heritage significance; its geographic remoteness; environmental and Aboriginal heritage considerations; drill-shattering rock hardness at 12 times tougher than concrete; the COVID-19 pandemic.

Achieving the initial build^

“I remember when I started at nbn in 2010, we had to literally write the book ourselves and build the project from the ground up.

“There were no established pit and pipe standards, no delivery partners, no contracts. We had to be very tactical yet remain strategic to work through our immediate problems in order to think about the future at the same time.

“It took a number of years to get going – in 2014, there were only around 500,000 premises ready to connect to the nbn™ network. Six years later and there are more than 11.734 million premises ready to connect!

“But it really was the only way forward, to back ourselves and be focused, to be relentless in our pursuit of completing the build.

Tasmania's west coast.

“My favourite fact has been that we delivered our ready to connect targets consistently for 25 months in a row. If we think about that in numbers – for the last two years alone, we’ve delivered almost five million premises, which brings to life just how massive the scale challenge has been.

“The health and safety of our people, and our extended workforce, has been our number one priority during the build. It was about making sure our people went home to their loved ones at the end of the day, so we had to build a strong culture with pure discipline and focus across our teams and delivery partners.

“We worked practically but also strategically, implementing a Pathway to Zero campaign, which looked at our number one problem in completing the build – underground asset strikes. Our sheer focus on health and safety really made this program successful.”

Rolling from Redcliffe to Brisbane

The number of premises to connect to the nbn™ network: more than 12,000.

The challenges included: hauling fibre 2.8 kilometres across Australia’s second longest bridge; painstakingly replacing sections of suspended conduit by hand; battling tidal conditions and working from a barge.

Hard rock rollout in the Perth Hills

The location: Mundaring, an outer suburb of Perth, 34 kilometres to the capital’s east.

The challenges included: 80 per cent of the build comprising rock, some eight times the strength of concrete; using nine drills from four different companies; installing a larger than average number of nodes.

Famous Melbourne landmarks get connected

The landmarks: Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), The State Library Victoria, St Paul’s Cathedral, Rod Laver Arena.

The challenges included: detailed design planning with multiple stakeholders; working around sporting and entertainment fixtures; stringent access inductions; heritage-listed considerations.

Taming the wild west of Tasmania

The location: Rosebery, Queenstown and Zeehan on Tasmania’s rugged west coast.

The challenges included: trucking in supplies 300 kilometres up windy mountain roads; black ice; never-ending rain; corrosive water from mining run-off.

Coming full circle to connect Parliament House

Under The Great Verandah

The landmark: Parliament House, Canberra.

The challenges included: planning and negotiating access; high security including six hours to x-ray all nbn™ equipment and contractor tools to be used in the build.

Making great connections at Groote Eylandt

The location: Australia’s fourth largest island, 50km off the east coast of Arnhem Land.

The challenges included: connecting in one of the country’s most remote locations; shipping tools and equipment in by barge in advance; fitting equipment, including satellites, into small planes.

Connecting underground in Coober Pedy

The location: 800km west of Adelaide, South Australia.

The challenges included: driving 700km from Alice Springs to install the first home – a dugout – in town to our network; building a fence around the satellite dish to keep the family dog out!

The nbn™ rollout by the numbers*

Discover more of the facts and figures behind the nbn™ network rollout…

10 – The number of years it took to complete the initial build rollout of the nbn™ network^.
4,860 – The number of Fibre-to-the-Node mini-nodes installed.
4,966 – The number of Service Area Modules (SAM) connected to the nbn™ network.
5,468 – The length in kilometres of Hybrid Fibre Coaxial (HFC) cable installed.
9,884 – The length in kilometres of aerial cable strung.
35,744 – The number of Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers (DSLAM) made active.
56,291 – The length in kilometres of Fibre-to-the-Curb (FTTC) cable laid.
56,859 – The number of HFC Multi-Dwelling Units (MDU) installed.
62,344 – The length in kilometres of trenches dug as part of the initial build rollout.
124,526 – The number of satellite dishes installed.
163,000 – The number of premises made ready to connect in one week, our busiest in June 2019.
323,743 – The length in kilometres of fibre optic cable rolled out as part of the build.
428,155 – The number of FTTC Distribution Point Units (DPU) installed.
2,168,413 – The number of pits dug.
2,722,117 – The number of HFC lead-ins installed.
11,734,000 – The number of premises ready to connect to the nbn™ network.
16,962,426 – The length in kilometres of fibre optic cable used in the rollout, if you laid the individual fibre strands found in the cable end-to-end (and 17.14 million when including Telstra leased fibre).

^ nbn’s initial build completion commitment was that all standard installation premises in Australia would be able to connect to the nbn™ network as at 30 June 2020. This excluded premises in future new developments which would be an ongoing activity for nbn beyond 30 June 2020. It also excluded a small proportion of premises defined as ‘complex connections’ – which includes properties that are difficult to access, culturally significant areas and heritage sites – where connection depends on factors outside of nbn’s control such as permission from traditional owners, and where network construction to allow such premises to connect will be an ongoing activity of nbn beyond 30 June 2020.

*As of 30 June 2020.