At a physical level, Telstra’s Broadbanding the Top End (Phase 1) project was an impressive engineering feat—800 kilometres of cable laid between Jabiru to Rio Tinto Alcan’s facility in Nhulunbuy across some of the harshest terrain in Australia—and presented an interesting case in good project management versus time constraints and resource requirements.
However, the project also had a ‘soft’ side that preceded its relatively short execution, brought upon by an early issue that involved the organisation attaining the correct approvals for land access across the area where they intended to lay the cable. They worked with National Parks to ensure they could go through Kakadu National Park, then the Northern Land Council, which represented traditional owners, to go through Arnhem Land.
“The land negotiations took a period of almost two years,” explains John Gibbs, executive director of Network Construction at Telstra Networks and Services. “One of the lessons learnt was that while we could get the approvals to do it at Northern Land Council level, we also required the permission of the traditional owners at the site level. We did experience, at the course of those meetings, some concerns of the local traditional owners, which we addressed by having regular meetings with them and proving to be flexible to get around it.”
Gibbs outlines that it was important Telstra understood their concerns and addressed them appropriately, even if it meant changing the initial plan. “It put significant engineering pressure into the solution to avoid areas of cultural significance,” he says.
Breaking new ground
Gibbs indicates that, had they known earlier that they needed additional approvals from the landowners as well as the Northern Land Council, “we may have done things a little differently in hindsight, but it didn’t impede our ability to get the job done”.
In the end, part of the job was to ensure that the cable-laying process didn’t intrude on areas of cultural significance, so Telstra hired traditional owners as monitors on the project to keep everything on line.
“We had to explain what we’d be doing that day, or in the next couple of days, and show them the installation techniques we were using,” says Gibbs. “In most cases, showing them what we were doing, and how we were going to reinstate the work after we’d finished, solved a lot of the issues. Community education and regular interface was very important.”
He adds that it wasn’t just the cable that had restrictions imposed on it; operations surrounding the process had to adhere to certain restrictions too. “From a staff perspective we were aware that we were working on Aboriginal land. Our licence made it very clear that we could only go on certain parts along the main path: along the construction path or in our camps,” he says.
The tough terrain also posed some difficulty, with a combination of land access restrictions and rocky ground giving rise to some innovative engineering solutions. While Telstra laid much of the cable by digging a channel using a bulldozer with a pick-like tool, or using rock breakers, if there was too much rock, or the traditional owners did not allow surface disturbance, they used other solutions.
“For areas of cultural significance we had a choice of going around it or we could underbore it, and we would discuss with the traditional owners as to what would be a suitable outcome,” explains Gibbs. “In a lot of cases we did do underground bores and actually ended up doing it under major rivers there, such as the East Alligator River.”