Tag Archives: APO

The role of the telecom Pillar & Cabinet in the Australian copper network

The gray telecom cabinets and pillars can be seen in suburbs across Australia, along rail corridors and even overseas.

But what do they do? What’s the difference between a pillar and a cabinet? Are they still used today? What’s inside? Why are they such an important part of the network?

What are they?

In a nutshell, they’re weatherproof (if properly cared for) enclosures for cross connecting (jumpering) cables.

This means that rather than doing the jumpering / cross connecting services in a dirty pit, a cabinet can be opened and the connection made quickly, in a clean, easily accessed, above ground housing.

They utilise a really clever design, that was the result of a competitive design process in the 1950s.

The schrader valve (bike valve) at the top allows the units to remain pressurized, this means in areas subject to flooding or for pressurised cables, the pillar remains water tight ( although the practice of sealing them again with air isn’t very common anymore).

When the aluminum top plate is unlocked and spun off the threaded fitting, the linesworker can unscrew the big nut on top, and lift up the cover, which locks open at the top, revealing the terminal units (either solder tag blocks or Krone blocks) inside the unit.

Jumpering a service is just a matter of opening up the cabinet, finding the A side and the B side, and running jumper wire through the built in cable management loops from one side to the other.

Each of the Terminal Units is a pre-terminated strip with a few meters of tail, which is fed through the base of the pillar to a nearby pit where they can join 1 to 1, out onto the underground cables, this means the units can be upgraded for additional capacity as needed.

While pressurised they are IP67 rated, but this only goes so far, check out this Telstra photo from Queensland Floods in 2010 from Taroom. https://www.flickr.com/photos/telstra-corp/5362036747/in/album-72157625841011142/
While pressurised they are IP67 rated, but this only goes so far, check out this Telstra photo from Queensland Floods in 2010 from Taroom.

Why were they needed?

  • Cables are expensive. We want to minimize excess unused pairs and use the existing pairs with maximum flexibility and efficacy
  • Opening joints costs time, money, and risks disturbing other services. We want to avoid opening joints
  • Troubleshooting is also time consuming and costly. A convenient test point is needed for isolating where in a cable a fault lies. (Main Cable, Distribution Cable, etc)
  • Easily use gas/air filled cables, without having to constantly open and reseal cables them to splice in new joins / jumpers

Cabinet vs Pillar

Cabinets and Pillars look the same, but the hints as to their purpose are in their location and what’s sprayed on them in faded paint.

Pillars are used for cross-connecting main cables (“M” Pair from the exchange) with distribution cables (to subscribers “O” pairs which run down the street to the pit in the front of your house).

Pillars are generally stenciled with a “P” and an number, or just the DA (Distribution Area) number.

Cabinet are a more flexible setup where you can connect cables between Pillars, akin to a root & branch approach.

Cabinets cross connect Main Cables (“M” pair to the exchange), with Branch Cables (“B” Pair from the Cabinet to Pillar) and Distribution cables (“O” pair to the customer).

Cabinets are stenciled with the prefix “CA” and a number, and exist in the 900 and 1800 pair variants, where one is just taller than the other.

The blue example is direct from the Main Cable to the Pillar, while Cabinets are used in the black example.

This means the distribution can go via a Cabinet to the Pillar to the Customer, as shown in the top /grey lines in the diagram.

  1. Exchange Main Cables (Main Cables / M-Pairs) go to Cabinets
  2. Cabinets connect to Pillars (Branch Cables / B-Pairs)
  3. Pillars connect (Distribution Cables / O-Pairs) that run through the pits outside houses
  4. Inside the Openable Joint in the pit is used to connect the lead in cable from a subscriber’s premises

Alternatively, the Cabinet may be bypassed and a direct cable goes between the Exchange and the Pillar, in that scenario it looks like the one show in blue lines on the diagram.

  1. Exchange Main Cables (Main Cables / M-Pairs) go to Pillar
  2. Pillars connect (Distribution Cables / O-Pairs) that run through the pits outside houses
  3. Inside the Openable Joint in the pit is used to connect the lead in cable from a subscriber’s premises
Display of 300, 900 and 1800 pair pillars and cabinets at the former Telstra Museum in Hawthorn

The Cabinet to Pillar model fell out of favor due to its increased complexity.
While it was cheaper to deploy the network using cabinets that cascaded down to feed pillars (you would only have to install enough cable for the “here and now” and could add additional Main & Branch cables as needed in a targeted manner) the move to outsourced lineswork for Telecom found that any increased complexity, led to additional operational cost that outweighed the capital savings

Use in the “Modern” Copper Customer Access Network

Pillars are still used in areas of Australia where NBNco have deployed Fibre to the Node.

NBN adds a row of X-Pairs (VDSL) and C-Pairs (Channel) to the pillar, which connect into the FTTN nodes themselves.

This means a customer with a traditional POTS line (M-Pair from the Exchange, C-Pair from the Cabinet to the Pillar, O-Pair from the Pillar to the Pit, and then the lead-in into their property) has the O-Pair and C-Pair buzzed out on the pillar, and then routed through the X-Pair and the C-Pair on the Node.

This puts the DSLAM in the Alcatel ISAM inline with the customer’s existing copper loop to the Exchange. The main cable comes from the exchange onto the M-Pair blocks in the Pillar, is jumpered onto the X-Pairs which go through the DSLAM, and come out as C-Pairs back onto the pillar. The C-Pair is then jumpered back to the Customer’s O-Pair and bingo, the FTTN cabinet is inline with the copper loop.

However as the PSTN services get dropped, the Main / M-Pair to the exchange can eventually be removed and the cables removed, meaning the connection just goes from the C pair for VDSL out into the O pair to the customer.

As part of the NBN migration some pillars were upgraded to include IDC / Punch Down blocks, and a rectangular version of the pillar was introduced.

NBN pillar

Oddly, these rectangular covers, do not have rectangular units inside, but rather cylindrical ones, just like the pillars of old.

This does fix the missing lids issue – The lid is captive, but I’m not sure what other design improvements this introduces – if anyone has the insight I’d be keen to hear it!

Australia’s East-West Microwave Link of the 1970s

On July 9, 1970 a $10 million dollar program to link Australia from East to West via Microwave was officially opened.
Spanning over 2,400 kilometres, it connected Northam (to the east of Perth) to Port Pirie (north of Adelaide) and thus connected the automated telephone networks of Australia’s Eastern States and Western States together, to enable users to dial each other and share video live, across the country, for the first time.

In 1877, long before road and rail lines, the first telegraph line – a single iron wire, was spanned across the Nullabor to link Australia’s Eastern states with Western Australia.

By 1930 an open-wire voice link had been established between the two sides of the continent.
This was open-wire circuit was upgraded a rebuilt several times, to finally top out at 140 channels, but by the 1960s Australian Post Office (APO) engineers knew a higher bandwidth (broadband carrier) system was required if ever Standard Trunk Dialling (STD) was to be implemented so someone in Perth could dial someone in Sydney without going via an operator.

A few years earlier Melbourne and Sydney were linked via a 600 kilometre long coaxial cable route, so API engineers spent months in the Nullarbor desert surveying the soil conditions and came to the conclusion that a coaxial cable (like the recently opened Melbourne to Sydney Coaxial cable) was possible, but would be very difficult to achieve.

Instead, in 1966, Alan Hume, the Postmaster-General, announced that the decision had been made to construct a network of Microwave relay stations to span from South Australia to Western Australia.

In the 1930s microwave communications had spanned the English channel, by 1951 AT&T’s Long Lines microwave network had opened, spanning the continental United States. So by the 1960’s Microwave transmission networks were commonplace throughout Europe and the US and was thought to be fairly well understood.

But soon APO engineers soon realised that the unique terrain of the desert and the weather conditions of the Nullabor, had significant impacts on the transmission of Radio Waves. Again Research Labs staff went back to spend months in the desert measuring signal strength between test sites to better understand how the harsh desert environment would impact the transmission in order to overcome these impediments.

The length of the link was one of the longest ever attempted, longer than the distance from London to Moscow,

In the end it was decided that 59 towers with heights from 22 meters to 76 meters were to be built, topped off with 3.6m tall microwave dishes for relaying the messages between towers.

The towers themselves were to be built in a zig-zag pattern, to prevent overshooting microwave signals from interfering with signals for the next station in the chain.

Due to the remote nature of the repeater sites, for 43 of the 59 repeater sites had to be fully self sufficient in terms of power.

Initial planning saw the power requirements of the repeater sites to be limited to 500 watts, APO engineers looked at the available wind patterns and determined that combined with batteries, wind generators could keep these sites online year round, without the need for additional power sources. Unfortunately this 500 watt power consumption target quickly tripled, and diesel generators were added to make up any shortfall on calm days.

The addition of the Diesel gensets did not in any way reduce the need to conserve power – the more Diesel consumed, the more trips across the desert to refuel the diesel generators would be required, so the constant need to keep power to a minimum was one of the key restraints in the project.

The designs of these huts were reused after the project for extreme temperature equipment housings, including one reused by Broadcast Australia seen in Marble Barr – The hottest town in Australia.

Active cooling systems (Like Air Conditioning) were out of the question due to being too power hungry. APO engineers knew that the more efficient equipment they could use, the less heat they would produce, and the more efficient the system would be, so solid state (transistorised devices) were selected for the 2Ghz transmission equipment, instead of valves which would have been more power-hungry and produced more heat.

The reduced power requirement of the fully transistorized radio equipment meant that wind-supplied driven generators could provide satisfactory amounts of power provided that the wind characteristics of the site were suitable.


So forced to use passive cooling methods, the engineers on the project designed the repeater huts to cleverly utilize ventilation and the orientation of the huts to keep them as cool as possible.

Construction was rough, but in just under 2 years the teams had constructed all 59 towers and the associated equipment huts to span the desert.

When the system first opened for service in July 1970, live TV programs could be simulcast on both sides of the country, for the first time, and someone in Perth could pick up the phone and call someone in Melbourne directly (previously this would have gone through an operator).

PMG Engineers designed a case to transport the fragile equipment spares – That resided in the back of a Falcon XR Station Wagon

The system offered 1+1 redundancy, and capacity for 600 circuits, split across up to 6 radio bearers, and a bearer could be dedicated at times to support TV transmissions, carried on 5 watt (2 watt when modulated) carriers, operating at 1.9 to 2.3Ghz.

By linking the two sides of Australia, Telecom opened up the ability to have a single time source distributed across the country, the station in Lyndhurst in Victoria, created the 100 “microseconds” signal generated by a VNG, that was carrier across the link.

Looking down one of the towers

Unlike AT&T’s Long Lines network, which lasted until after MCI, deregulation and the breakup off the Bell System, the East-West link didn’t last all that long.

By 1981, Telecom Australia (No longer APO) had installed their first experimental optic fibre cable between Clayton and Springvale, and fibre quickly became the preferred method for broadband carrier circuits between exchanges.

By 1987, Melbourne and Sydney were linked by fibre, and the benefits of fibre were starting to be seen more broadly, and by 1989, just under 20 years since the original East-West Microwave system opened, Telecom Australia completed a 2373 kilometre long / 14 fibre cable from Perth to Adelaide, and Optus followed in 1993.

This effectively made the microwave system redundant. Fibre provided a higher bandwidth, more reliable service, that was far cheaper to operate due to decreased power requirements. And so piece by piece microwave hops were replaced with fibre optic cables.

I’m not clear on which was the last link to be switched off (If you do know please leave a comment or drop me a message), but eventually at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the system was decommissioned.

Many of the towers still stand today and carry microwave equipment on them, but it is a far cry from what was installed in the late 1960s.

Advertisement from Andrew Antennas


East-west microwave link opening (Press Release)

Walkabout.Vol. 35 No. 6 (1 June 1969) – Communications Across the Nullabor

$8 Million Trans-continental link

ABC Goldfields-Esperance – Australia’s first live national television broadcast

APO – Newsletter ‘New East-West Trunks System’

TelevisionAU.com 50 years since Project Australia

Whirlpool Post

TJA Article on spur to Lenora