Overcoming rollout challenges in remote Western Australia

To get a sense of the enormity of what NBN Co has achieved in completing the network rollout in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara and Kimberley regions, you need only look at a map.

The Kimberley town of Kununurra (population 5,308) located near the Northern Territory border is more than 3,200 kilometres from Perth.

That’s about the same distance from the Western Australian capital to Melbourne on the other side of the continent.

Contemplating the utter remoteness of this place’s isolated location is just the start of appreciating the challenges NBN Co has had to overcome to bring these two vast, inhospitable and sparsely populated regions of the nation into the fold.

Extreme heat and humidity, cyclones, flash floods, spectacular electrical storms that appear out of nowhere and spark bush fires, poisonous snakes, spiders and crocodiles are just some of the hazards nature has thrown our way.

Then there are the crucial logistical considerations for the massive distances from major population centres, sensitive indigenous stakeholder issues, and the concerns of mining companies who dominate entire towns.

That’s what makes this month’s milestone of completing construction of the nbn™ broadband access network in the Pilbara and Kimberley such a remarkable achievement.

With the hard work on the ground complete, both these adjacent areas encompassing some 925,517 square kilometres of Australia’s largest state are now in the process of being declared ‘Ready for Service’. It’s another significant step in NBN Co completing its mission to provide access to fast broadband across the nation.

Few are prouder of that fact than Josh Gunputh.

The Perth-based NBN Co Project Manager has been there since the beginning, riding the highs and the lows of rolling out the network across this spectacular landscape. Everywhere from the tourist hotspot of Broome on the north-east coast, and 833 kilometres west to Karratha, to the triangle of iron ore mining towns comprising Tom Price, Paraburdoo and Newman to the south.

Embracing local challenges

“The Pilbara and Kimberley region covers quite a vast area in terms of distance and each one of these towns has their unique challenges,” says Gunputh.

As he walks his fingers across a map of north-west WA, he reels off some of those very challenges and the often-innovative solutions that NBN Co and Delivery Partner WBHO have engineered to overcome them.

Take Kununurra for example.

Apart from its extreme remoteness, stifling heat and energy-sapping humidity, other factors had to be taken into account – the kind unlikely to be found when rolling out the network in metro areas, such as Sydney and Melbourne.

“It’s well known for crocodiles,” says Gunputh matter-of-factly.

“There was the story of a site supervisor in Kununurra who said he had two of his pet dogs killed by a crocodile in his backyard.

“So you always have to make sure you don’t have your back turned at all times.”

Poisonous snakes making their home in pits where our people were working was also an unwelcome reality.

“There was a case in Kununurra where workers were holding what they thought was a cable and it turned out to be a snake!”

More than a thousand kilometres to the west, the coastal tourist mecca of Broome by contrast is fabled for its beautiful Cable Beach and pearl diving history.

In more recent times, it was also smack-bang in the middle of a tropical cyclone, which caused severe flooding, cutting access to the town.

It was a situation that NBN Co worked hard to avoid, moving heaven and earth to finish work before the start of the wet season in March.

“This area is very well known for cyclones, floods and the rest,” says Gunputh.

Cable Beach in Broome.

“Had that happened while we were doing the work, it would have been a complete disaster, not only in terms of safety for personnel but also damage to equipment.

“So from a health and safety perspective, we had to make sure that all our operators were working in a safe environment, especially when you’ve got electricity and water in the mix.”

As a result, in this part of the world, NBN Co has designed and built the network to take nature’s fury into account, with precautions such as placing some nodes on higher than normal concrete plinths in an effort to protect them from rising flood waters.

Working with the local Yawuru people

Broome has also emerged as a textbook example of highly effective indigenous engagement.

Faced with initial cynicism from the local Yawuru people, NBN Co worked hard to gain their trust, respect and, ultimately, co-operation when the time came to begin rolling out the network.

Meeting with the Yawuru people in Broome.

“We realised pretty early on when we were doing the designs that if we didn’t come up with an innovative way of working there, we were going to face delays of between 18 to 24 months,” says Gunputh.

“We had to redesign what was there to take into account that we wanted to minimise disruption through digging because the more digging we do, the more you have a chance of hitting or coming across artefacts or damaging land that is considered to be sacred.”

A key element of NBN Co’s approach was taking the time to explain to the indigenous community what the nbn™ access network is, what it means and exactly what work was going to be involved.

“We also shared the amount of work we were doing to look for alternate paths to minimise disruption to the land, which is very culturally significant to Yawuru people,” said Gunputh.

“Once they appreciated the amount of effort and work that was going in to do that, they realised that we were taking it seriously.”

NBN Co Chief Network Engineering Officer Peter Ryan also took the time to visit the area, where the traditional owners hosted a Smoking Ceremony and Welcome to Country to mark the start of the rollout in the community.

“To go from where we started to where we ended was amazing and the success, looking back on it now, means it can be used as a blueprint for engagement elsewhere,” says Gunputh.

Local MP Melissa Price with two students from the local high school and their node artwork.

That engagement is continuing beyond construction, with NBN Co working with local school children in a program encouraging them to create unique indigenous artwork to be used to ‘wrap’ each node.

“These nodes won’t be seen as an intrusion on the town; they are part of the community and there is pride in the children’s artwork,” says Gunputh.

Innovative thinking, a key feature

The ability to be flexible, to think outside the square and come up with innovative solutions to get the job done has been a feature of the Pilbara-Kimberley rollout.

BHP operates a privately-owned rail line used primarily to transport iron ore from its Pilbara mining operation to Port Hedland.

When blocked conduit beneath the tracks meant we faced potential delays of up to six months and hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra costs to dig our own, a lateral-thinking WBHO employee came up with a deceptively simple idea.

A super-tough plastic bag used as a ‘parachute’ was instead attached to a piece of wire and dragged through the existing conduit, clearing the blockage and allowing the rollout to continue with minimal disruption – and at a fraction of the cost.

Just like the rest of the country, electricity is vital to supply power to the Fibre-To-The-Node (FTTN) cabinets that NBN Co has installed throughout the Pilbara-Kimberley.

Unlike in other areas, conditions stipulated by BHP – who provide power to the mining town of Newman – that NBN Co’s electricity usage be metered meant we had to come up with an entirely new approach.

The 'parachute' used to clear blocked conduits.

To satisfy the company’s requirement that electricity use for each node be monitored, a unique two-node solution was devised – the second cabinet incorporating separate lockable doors allowing access to both BHP and NBN Co.

“We had to come up with a completely new way of doing things there that hadn’t been done in any other town,” says Gunputh.

Some challenges, however, were common across the region.

Common – but remote – challenges

The vast distances from major population centres meant WBHO was required to establish a base in each area they worked where they could stockpile logistics and equipment.

Accommodation also needed to be found for the scores of workers that were to be flown in – not always an easy task given the limited infrastructure of some of the towns in question.

The whole process would then have to be repeated as the network build moved on to the next community, sometimes thousands of kilometres away.

“You are starting from scratch every time in terms of relationships, in terms of logistics, which means you couldn’t really have this economy of scale where you could just keep moving people around and do what you could do in metro,” says Gunputh.

One person who witnessed this process first-hand, and appreciates the enormity of what it takes to get the job done in ‘the middle of nowhere’, is Kingsley Broadley.

NBN Co Field Supervisor (Quality Assurance) Kingsley Broadley.

The veteran Field Supervisor (Quality Assurance) has spent three decades – first with Telstra and then for the past seven years with NBN Co – connecting some of the most isolated parts of the nation.

“I’ve worked across the Nullarbor and all the way up to Broome and Kununurra, the whole deal in varying roles. I’ve seen it all, pretty much.”

We joined Broadley on a recent trip to the remote Pilbara mining town of Tom Price.

Tom Price: ‘Top Town in WA’

Nestled in the shadow of Mount Nameless and a stone’s throw from the spectacular Karijini National Park, the well-maintained community of 2,700 on the edge of the Hamersley Range is the highest town in the state above sea level, earning it the nickname ‘Top Town in WA.’

The 1,469-kilometre drive from Perth to Tom Price takes more than 16 hours.

Fortunately, we’re arriving by air courtesy of a two-hour Qantas flight to the nearby Rio Tinto-owned regional airport at Paraburdoo.

While you get a sense of the vast landscape looking out the aircraft window, the harsh reality of exactly where you are doesn’t really hit you until you’re on the ground.

Walking onto the baking hot tarmac, the 37-degree heat smacks you in the face like a frying pan. So does the sense of isolation. The absolute silence beneath an impossibly blue sky wraps itself around you and is reinforced by the untouched expanse of red sand and spinifex extending to the horizon in every direction.

After an 80-kilometre drive through a landscape of distant rock formations and purple-red cliffs, we arrive in Tom Price.

The last of the towns in the Pilbara-Kimberley region to be completed, Broadley is onsite to perform quality assurance – last minute checks on already completed work – before the town is declared Ready for Service.

An easy going, motorcycle-riding bear of a man sporting a flowing white beard, the WA native looks more like a member of rock band ZZ Top than a telco veteran.

He doesn’t hesitate when asked what attracts him to working in such untamed parts of the country.

“I prefer being outdoors. I like to be out and about and seeing different things. I’m one of those kinds of people who wonders what’s just over the hill.”

While Broadley spends as much time as he has to in the city, encountering a set of traffic lights is enough to start hankering for his next remote job.

“It’s just too confining,” he says about city life.

“Here, you can get out and about, you know what you’ve got to do and it’s mainly about getting on with the job.”

Broadley says there is much more to working in ‘the remotes’ than desert sunsets, spectacular scenery and solitude.

“The logistics are huge coming to a place like this.

“The Delivery Partners have to make sure they get everything here. If you forget something, it’s a long haul to go back!”

The most stressful part of any trip, says Broadley, is the preparation.

“We fly here, so the night before it’s like, ‘Have I got this, have I got that?’ because on days like today, I’m the only one here. If I’ve forgotten something, it stays forgotten.”

With temperatures as high as 49 degrees, protection from the heat and keeping the effects of dehydration at bay out in the field is always top of mind.

“When they did the Broome job, the amount of bottled water the guys required was astronomical,” says Broadley.

“It can be really humid and they had to supply thousands of litres per month. That’s a lot of water.”

Over a cold beer in the Tom Price pub, Broadley tells me that Trevor from WBHO is on his way to meet up with us to carry out any on-the-spot work necessary, detected via his final checks on the network construction work.

NBN Co's Kingsley Broadley working on a node.

Like Broadley, Trevor is a telco industry veteran who’s worked in some of the most remote parts of the continent. And, as if on cue, Trevor walks in, introduces himself and casually mentions he’s driven more than one thousand kilometres to be here from the south coast town of Denham.

“Yeah, it is a long way, I suppose. I did stop along the way though,” he says with a grin.

Touring Tom Price

Dropping into the visitor centre at Tom Price is a reminder of the harsh realities of life in this part of the continent.

Among the glossy brochures sporting pictures of spectacular waterfalls, rocky outcrops and scenic mountain ranges are pamphlets on cyclone-safe travel, preparing for storms, and how to survive bush fires.

Visitor centre worker and Tom Price local Rachel Ditchburn says she’s excited to finally be getting closer to accessing the nbn™ access network.

“We use the internet a lot in here and it would be great if it was faster,” she says.

“Tourists come in and ask us to look things up for them online, but it can be very slow, which is frustrating.”

Ditchburn is also looking forward to a great online shopping experience at home, something many others in the isolated town also regard as a priority.

“A lot of us here rely on that. Online shopping is huge in a remote area like this. Just go and have a look in the post office and you’ll see!”

Manager of Corporate Services at Tom Price Primary School, Julie Watson displays a quiet frustration with the town’s current slow internet speed.

“At home, downloading Netflix is slow and gets interrupted when you’re watching a show, and at school the internet is slow, but we have just gotten used to it,” she says.

Rachel Ditchburn (left) and Kirsty Bailey at the Tom Price visitor centre.

When it comes to the difference the nbn™ access network could make, Watson is adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.

“You get used to things taking a while when you live in a remote area like this. Things don’t happen overnight. They say ‘WA’ stands for ‘Wait Awhile’.”

But she’s prepared to give the nbn™ access network the benefit of the doubt.

“The internet is so slow up here, it’s just terrible. The nbn™ access network coming can only be a positive.”

Broadley believes it will take time for the majority of Australians to truly appreciate just what NBN Co has accomplished in this vast, underpopulated region.

“I don’t think people actually understand how big a thing this is, because everyone wants it right now.”

“To do that, we have to get to almost every single house across the country. That’s a big call!”