After eight years and more than $1.8 billion, the Department of Defence has finally reached the end of its long-delayed fixed telecommunications network replacement project with Telstra.

Defence revealed the terrestrial communications (DCTN) had “recently reached final operating capability” (FOC) when announcing a new $1 billion contract renewal with the telco on Wednesday.

It means that all permanent Defence sites and overseas troop deployments are now linked to the same network, and satellite and tactical networks integrated, albeit five years later than first planned.

A spokesperson told iTnews FOC was declared on October 10, with the critical unified communications capability – the final capability release – delivered three months earlier in July.

This is at odds with the department’s account of the program in August, when it said “work is continuing to ensure the delivery of unified communications capability” necessary for the high-speed, IP-based network to reach FOC.

The long road

Telstra was first assigned to build the terrestrial communications network (DCTN) for $1.1 billion in October 2012, with completion of the high-speed, IP-based network slated for mid-2016.

Just three months out from the initial planned completion date, however, Telstra was still working toward the initial operating capability (IOC), one of the first critical milestones for the delivery of the DCTN.

The project eventually reached IOC five years’ later than planned in April 2018, which saw Telstra begin managing telecommunications at three Defence sites – RAAF Base Edinburgh, Kokoda Barracks and Victoria Barracks.

A further 273 sites came online during the remainder of 2018, while the remaining 92 sites were expected to come online before final operating capability (FOC) – or full operations – in late-2019.

But as was the case with IOC, 2019 came and went without Defence reaching FOC, pushing the project further behind schedule.

It was around this time that the project’s senior responsible officer assessed the likelihood of DCTN being delivered as “medium-low” – the second worst delivery confidence level for a project.

The rating revealed in a document released to iTnews showed urgent action was necessary to address major risks, though the precise nature of the concerns were redacted.

Another heavily redacted document [pdf] released to iTnews under freedom of information laws last month, however, suggested the project was at least partially back on track by February.

The document, part of the Digital Transformation Agency’s information collection for the digital review, indicated that “project management practice has been improved”.

It said “lead indicators to track and alert likely schedule impacts” had been implemented, offering a “greater focus on critical path and near critical path analysis”.

“We are applying improved risk management including tracking treatments and reviewing risk impacts, as well as enhanced governance with a focus on driving outcomes and a culture that applies lessons learned,” the document states.

The next eight years

The new deal, which remains Telstra’s largest-ever customer contract, will now see the telco continue to provide services to support Defence operations for up to another eight years.

But it should be a very different eight years to the eight just gone, with efforts shifting to support the IP network, while deploying 5G, wi-fi 6, and full software-defined wide area network and software-defined network capabilities.

Defence said the services to be provided would give it “greater agility to meet increasing demand on telecommunications services, ensure capabilities are kept modern, drawing on the latest technology and securing the department from the pervasive cyber threat”.

Asked why the department did not approach the market to recontest the contract, a spokesperson said the new contract “extends and refreshes arrangements for provision of terrestrial communications services”.

“These services underpin the provision of ICT to the Department, and are critical to the delivery of capability to support ADF operations and Defence business,” the spokesperson said.

”These services also support the capabilities delivered through the separate Terrestrial Communications Joint Project 2047.

“Extensive industry engagement and analysis was undertaken as part of this process.”