Obstacles facing the deployment of fibre-optic cable in the Australian outback

You can do a lot to protect cables, but according to David Upton, you can’t do much to protect them from wombat damage.

A wombat’s like a solid ball of muscle. If there’s a cable there, they keep on burrowing through," he says. "They bash it to bits. But wombats are a protected species. You can’t just pick them up and move them somewhere else."

If you can’t move the wombats, you move the cable. There’s eight million square kilometres of Australia to choose from, but it’s not that simple.

As well as burrowing balls of muscle, Upton’s project, which involves laying 7,000km of cable across the north of Australia, has to route cable around Aboriginal heritage sites and across ridges of impenetrable iron ore. He has to avoid flood plains. He also has to traverse the substance known locally as ‘black soil’.

Black soil contains expansive clay, which is no friend of fibre. In the Northern Territories there are two seasons: "In the wet season the soil is mushy; in the dry season it is like concrete, it shrinks and cracks and moves a lot. In the early cable installations in the 1980s, it just tore the cables apart," Upton explains. It’s not just cables in peril: the cracks in black soil sometimes become big enough to injure livestock that falls into them.

Upton is the external plant manager for Visionstream and has been putting fibre in the ground since the 1980s. Established in 1994 as a subsidiary of Telstra, later acquired by Australian holding company Leighton Contractors, Visionstream is one of the most experienced network builders in Australia – a country that requires local expertise. Its services are in demand: Australia’s National Broadband Network is investing A$35.7 billion to build a network that will bring superfast broadband to 93% of the population.

Every developed economy, notably the US, is struggling to incentivise providers to create rural broadband. So starting with the ideal solution – a point-to-point line drawn on a Google Earth map – Upton’s colleagues drive into the outback to plot a route. A team of experts accompanies them. As well as environmental specialists and geologists, the cable layers may potentially be digging up ground that is important to the indigenous population, so they need to bring someone who knows where it is. "We engage the local aboriginal leaders to point out the areas of significance," he says.

Then when they hit rock, it’s a case of drill when they can, blast when the drill won’t work or, as a last resort, use steel pipe on the surface and run the cable through it. Temperatures hit 50C in the day and drop below freezing at night, but it is work that needs to be done to exacting engineering standards. Upton still leaves his desk at the Melbourne office to join cabling work that is taking place 2,000km away: "but not full time. I’ve been doing the job too long to do that," he admits. 

Tim Phillips can be contacted at: tim@timphillips.co.uk

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