NBN Co faces FTTC skills squeeze

The rollout is on track but the company still faces engineering challenges says Kathrine Dyer

NBN Co's Kathrine Dyer

NBN Co's Kathrine Dyer

Credit: Anna Kucera

NBN Co is on track to complete its network by June 2020 but the government-owned company is still dealing with a range of engineering challenges, according to its chief network deployment officer, Kathrine Dyer.

One of the key ones is scaling up the rollout of fibre to the curb (FTTC), which is the newest member of NBN Co’s ‘multi-technology mix’.

“We are now the first country to roll out this technology at scale and we expect to have the largest FTTC footprint in the world with some 1.4 million homes and businesses expected to be connected to FTTC in the final footprint,” Dyer said today, delivering the Telecommunications Society’s Charles Todd Oration.

Since March, NBN Co has declared more than 160,000 premises ready to connect using FTTC.

The technology involves hauling fibre much closer to a household than fibre to the node (FTTN involves around 500 metres of copper for the final connection) and ADSL (around 2.5km of copper). NBN Co’s FTTC connections generally use around 30 metres of copper running from a home or business to a nearby telecoms pit. That presents a range of challenges for NBN Co and its construction partners.

“We are working with our delivery partners to make sure we are rapidly adjusting our design and construction processes to support the scaling of the FTTC network,” Dyer said.

“We have a great record in accelerating the deployment of all of our technologies by working closely with our delivery partners and equipment suppliers. We are well on the way to achieving this with FTTC as well.

“Importantly, we are very proud of the work we have done on FTTC in helping achieve very high levels of customer satisfaction from early connected homes and businesses.”

Workforce resourcing remains a key difficulty faced by NBN Co for the FTTC rollout, she said.

“Workforce contention is very different to what we have previously experienced with the network build,” Dyer said.

“In the early days of the FTTP [fibre to the premises] rollout there were not enough experienced fibre technicians; with the FTTN rollout there was a shortage of skilled copper resources. With the deployment at scale of FTTC we are seeing civil resource contention in certain states.”

“In both Victoria and NSW where a large portion of our final footprint is under construction, the industry contention for civil resources is at some of the highest levels I’ve ever seen in my career,” she said.

That contention is a product of the “vast number” of infrastructure projects currently being undertaken.

“As an example, when we are trying to attract civil resources we may be able to give a contractor two weeks’ worth of drilling,” Dyer said. “That location would most likely be in an urbanised area with high traffic and parking constraints.

“Contrast this with that same team being offered a three-month contract on a major road construction project without the same level of traffic and safety considerations. “

“This is an example of a constraint we are managing closely as we move into the final years of the rollout to ensure we maintain the workforce we need,” she said.

Diversity

Dyer is the first woman to deliver the Charles Todd Memorial Oration

“I’m told that I’m the first Australian female leader in our industry to deliver this high-profile memorial address,” Dyer said. “I can’t help but pause and reflect on that.

“In 2005 at Telstra, I had just taken on a leadership role to support the deployment of fibre into greenfields estates.

“I was initially told by people around me at the time that a woman would never be appointed to that type of leadership role. This was a defining moment for me.”

“I don’t think people were being unkind, just matter of fact,” the NBN Co executive said. “And, unfortunately, the facts still speak too far in that direction.”

Dyer cited Workplace Gender Equality Agency data that only around 30 per cent of employees in the Australian telco sector are women.

“As we climb through the ranks of these organisations, this reduces even further,” she said.

“In middle management, around 25 per cent are women. At the level of key management personnel we see that at just over 18 per cent. And by the time we look at CEOs and heads of business, it’s as low as just 4.8 per cent.”

“What I’m interested in, for our industry, is the opportunity for innovation that diversity brings... Without it, we can’t solve the complex problems and develop solutions appropriate to everyone,” Dyer said.

As of the end of June, around 32 per cent of NBN Co employees were women; among senior management the proportion was around 30 per cent.

“By 2020, we want that representation in our senior management ranks to be 33 per cent and by 2022 we are aiming for 40 per cent,” Dyer said. “Bold targets, but we’re on our way to achieving them.

“We are hiring more women. We are working with industry groups such as Engineers Australia and specialist recruiters to highlight the job opportunities that exist for women at NBN.”

Charles Todd Medal

Vodafone Australia CEO Iñaki Berroeta was today awarded the 2018 Charles Todd Medal by TelSoc.

TelSoc said the award recognised the CEO’s achievements in “radically improving” the performance of Vodafone “especially in its product offerings and its customer service, and for his active collaboration across the industry to deliver reforms of benefit to all telecommunications consumers.”

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