Spread the Word
To Build Australia's Largest Free Wireless Network, Project Managers Had To Make the Right Connections
BY SARAH PROTZMAN HOWLETT
“We wanted visitors to easily be able to get online, share their stories and learn about Victoria and Melbourne.”
—Ben Thomas, VicFreeWiFi, Melbourne, Australia
Few places in Australia draw more visitors than the country's second-largest city, Melbourne. But leaders of the greater Melbourne region weren't about to take that popularity for granted.
That's why the state of Victoria launched an initiative to provide free Wi-Fi so the city's 4 million residents and nearly 60 million annual visitors could easily share their experiences—and promote the city—in real time. The five-year, AU$11 million Vic-FreeWiFi and Connected Cities program delivered a network that makes it easier for crowds to text, blog and tweet about their favorite public spaces.
“A number of tourists were finding it difficult to get connectivity on their devices,” says Ben Thomas, project director, VicFreeWiFi, Melbourne, Australia. “We wanted visitors to easily be able to get online, share their stories and learn about Victoria and Melbourne.”
The rollout of the continent's largest free Wi-Fi network—covering about 600,000 square meters (148 acres) and spanning two other cities in Victoria—was completed on time and within budget in January. But building the network involved much more than plugging in routers. Project managers had to engage an array of stakeholders representing buildings and public infrastructure, and contend with changing technical requirements.
“This wasn't a standard IT project in any way, shape or form because of the scale at which we were looking to roll out,” Mr. Thomas says.
VicFreeWiFi's contract with the Victoria state government stipulated that all internet access points for the Melbourne project be within the city. That meant the project team had to leverage existing infrastructure across the city to provide coverage in crowded public spaces, says Sothis Palaniyappan, national project director for special projects at Fibre Operations Group, TPG Telecom, Melbourne, Australia. (TPG was the telecom services contractor for VicFreeWiFi.)
The team ultimately chose train stations, shopping areas, public parks, museums and a convention center to install wireless access points. Determining precisely which locations would deliver the most value was a multifaceted part of the planning phase. For instance, TPG used Twitter data to determine which access points would provide the most value. “Twitter published precisely where people were [tweeting from] in the Melbourne central business district,” Mr. Thomas says. “This information was freely available.”
The team also held meetings with local residents, city council tourism and engineering officials as well as business and social services representatives to help ensure targeted access-point locations were suitable. Before the team locked in locations, it performed site surveys and field investigations to ensure feasibility.
But the Wi-Fi network buildout was complicated by the fact that other parts of the city's infrastructure also were changing. The Melbourne Metro Rail Authority was expanding a rail line during the same period, and project leads at that organization sought assurance from TPG that their work wouldn't be affected by the network installations. Counterparts from each organization met to minimize any friction.
Bids solicited for VicFreeWiFi program
Pilot networks in Bendigo and Ballarat completed
Melbourne project launched
Melbourne central business district network rollout completed
As the project moved into the execution phase, another challenge involved installing network access points in hard-to-reach places, Mr. Thomas says. “We had some difficulty installing access points in the docklands, whereby technicians had to get into scuba diving gear to install cabling underneath a wharf,” he says. Train stations posed other access challenges: “We were deploying infrastructure deep in underground train tunnels,” he says.
To determine the most efficient solutions, the project team met with Victorian government officials and third-party specialists. As implementation proceeded, close contact with stakeholders helped address any issues that popped up. For example, the city of Melbourne “was concerned this project would pose a safety risk to the public, especially pedestrians, due to construction on footpaths at various locations around the central business district,” Ms. Palaniyappan says. Some construction involved uprooting footpaths and roads to build new fiber infrastructure and mounting access points to poles at least 3 meters (9.8 feet) above ground.
“This wasn't a standard IT project in any way, shape or form because of the scale at which we were looking to roll out.”
The solution: The project team agreed to restrict construction to a few zones at a time, and provided weekly email updates to local council members, residents and business owners about where and when construction was happening.
All of this work couldn't start until the team had submitted safety and traffic management plans to the appropriate city council bodies. Affected councils had to approve more than 1,000 permits before any construction commenced. With so many requirements to juggle, the project team concentrated on keeping communication open across a steering committee, Mr. Thomas says.
Aerial view of Melbourne, Australia
The project team had to leverage existing infrastructure across the city to provide coverage in crowded public spaces.
—Sothis Palaniyappan, TPG Telecom, Melbourne, Australia
“We set up an effective governance model with senior representatives from each of the program's key stakeholders,” he says. “It was pretty intense and matched the pace of the deployment itself. Things were moving so quickly through the project. We had to keep everyone a couple of steps ahead to ensure we could keep momentum.”
The VicFreeWiFi team also routinely met with fiber construction project managers, a scheduler and wireless engineers to ensure requirements stemming from the Victorian government were met. “Good working relationships with local authorities and relevant third parties were critical to our success,” Ms. Palaniyappan says.
By design, Melbourne's network was the last of three in the VicFreeWifi program. Projects completed in December 2015 in the smaller cities of Bendigo and Ballarat provided lessons learned for the Melbourne initiative. Decisions, risks and difficult issues from those projects were clearly documented in registers and shared with Melbourne project stakeholders throughout that project's construction phase.
“Our eyes were wide open at the end of those [earlier projects],” Mr. Thomas says.
Among other things, the project team learned the value of establishing strong partnerships with local power companies. Building such a massive network required workers to have access to electricity 24/7, but in some locations power companies shut off electricity for half of the day. When it was time to install the Melbourne network, the team reviewed electricity infrastructure with the power company to ensure network installers would have uninterrupted power, Mr. Thomas says.
Installing Wi-Fi access points on corners of buildings in Bendigo and Ballarat also uncovered technical problems. In some places, project teams discovered that when trucks turned near those access points, connectivity would be lost. This risk was eliminated for Melbourne's installations by moving the access points and installing special antennae that were less likely to be struck by trucks.
Ben Thomas, project director, VicFreeWiFi, Victorian Government
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Experience: 10 years
Other notable project:
Victorian Government Information and Communications Technology Strategy Initiative, a program completed in 2015 that improved government's technology and communications capabilities. Mr. Thomas served as program manager.
Career lesson learned: “Trust is something that every project needs to earn—it is the vital key in delivering meaningful change.”
Although it will be months before Melbourne will begin to measure some of the benefits—in the form of increased social media activity and an uptick in tourists—Mr. Thomas says the city and state were ideal partners for his project team.
“This is such an emerging space,” Mr. Thomas says. “We are interested to see how people will use this network to make their lives and businesses better.” PM