The rationale for NBN Co's push to help construction companies ramp up their rollout teams is discussed in Business Spectator and there are quite a few questions that need to be asked of the failed approach taken to carry out the construction of the NBN.
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NBN’s ambitious plan to complete the multi-technology mix National Broadband Network rollout by the end of this decade appears to be one step closer as a result of its decision to recruit and train 4,500 workers that will be employed by construction partners within the telco industry.
Currently NBN employs about 3,600 people and construction partners employ another 4,500 people either directly or as sub-contractors.
In 2012 NBN estimated the peak rollout-related workforce would be 16,000 to 18,000, the company has since revised the estimates of the total number of construction workers to about 9,000 with an additional 5,000 employed directly by NBN by 2020. There may yet be a need for NBN to revisit this projection over the next couple of years, but for now the company is able to focus on completing the network after overcoming regulatory and commercial delays caused by the government’s decision to alter the technology mix.
The target for rollout crews is to increase the connection rate from the estimated 8,000 premises per week that is currently being achieved to more than 20,000 premises per week. NBN’s analysis of the workforce needed to achieve the peak rollout rate has highlighted that there’s a need for an additional 4500 construction workers by the end of the 2018 financial year.
Source: NBN Co 2015
The 4,500 workers will be distributed around Australia with 1,300 jobs in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, 900 in Western Australia, 900 in Queensland, 800 in Victoria, 400 in South Australia/Northern Territory, 200 in Tasmania. In the Northern Territory, NBN does not utilise a construction partner and has built up a small but highly efficient construction division that works with the local sub-contractors that field the rollout teams.
NBN is taking a positive outcomes based approach to the rollout and has introduced multi-technology integrated master agreements to reward construction partners for speed, quality and safety and to provide direct funding of training for industry workers to upskill them for specialised tasks.
The decision to outsource the rollout to construction partners has significantly inflated costs and introduced unwelcome delays. While the construction problems will not be completely alleviated by the changes introduced, the likelihood of the project completing on time has increased.
The focus of the recruitment program will be to boost the Fibre to the Node (FTTN) rollout by injecting a large number of people into the workforce that have training on how to cut-over copper connections to premises and remediate copper drop-lines.
NBN CEO Bill Morrow has highlighted the goal of attracting recently retired or out of work former telco employees to be retrained and work with younger trainees during this next phase of the rollout. The work would include copper cable joiners, lines workers, cable layers, technicians and electrical cable layers.
“To those with telco experience, there are options to use your skills or become a teacher and coach for the next generation of workers,” Morrow said.
“To those thinking about what course or career to pursue, our partners are developing options that will include training and real job opportunities on the NBN Co network over the long term.”
Now that NBN is taking a more proactive role in facilitating training for workers to join construction companies it will begin “signing agreements with a number of training organisations, comprising TAFEs and Registered Training Organisations, with providers in every major rollout region across the country.”
To aid in future recruitment and worker re-deployment NBN is also creating a national NBN skills register, which will help record worker accreditations across the network.
It's anticipated that NBN and the construction partners will continue to grow the rollout and operational workforce towards a total of 16,000 by early 2019. Even with a change of government or a shift to Fibre to the Distribution Point (FTTDp) the size of the workforce needed to complete the NBN rollout is not likely to vary significantly, so it is more a question of how quickly NBN and its construction partners can grow the workforce needed to complete the rollout and at the same time effectively operate the network.
It’s uncertain how many “late-career” workers will be enticed to re-enter the workforce or to move from their current employment back to working with copper at NBN but the prospect of four to five years of solid well paid employment will be encouraging for some.
There has also been a reduction of trained workers available for the rollout as Australian Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) rollout crews have started to appear in New Zealand and elsewhere due to the government’s decision to revert to a FTTN rollout. Remaining fibre rollout crews are now focusing on laying fibre to nodes in the transit and distribution areas of the network.
Of the 10 million Australian premises the government hopes to have between 3-4 million either connected or in the process of being connected by December 2016 and this means there will be about 6-7 million premises to connect between 2017-2020 for NBN to complete the rollout.
In 2012 at an IEEE forum NBN Co’s former executive general manager, planning & design Peter Ferris presented a FTTP FSAM rollout projection that identified that the peak rollout would commence in early 2014 and continue for five years. The effective loss of two years due to the government’s tinkering means that the peak rollout is not likely to commence until mid-2016 and continue through until 2020, the same year the government wants the rollout to be completed.
The construction process now takes centre stage and the key activities for NBN will be to add the Telstra and Optus Hybrid Fibre Coax (HFC) networks to the NBN, commence the FTTN rollout in earnest and to gain traction with the Fibre to the Basement (FTTB) rollout. The challenges ahead are not small but we should gain some confidence that with the workforce now growing the rollout may yet be completed by 2020.
Mark Gregory is a senior lecturer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT University.