When to refine your remote network
Overcoming the challenges headed for networks serving harsh environments
“Bandwidth requirements will double between now and 2020,” he commented “with both crew welfare and operational issues driving that increase.”
ROil & gas companies are continually challenged to improve their operational and safety performance while at the same time cutting costs. But although the industry operates in some of the most extreme and remote environments, it’s no backwater when it comes to adopting new technologies, reports Telesperience’s Teresa Cottam. emote networks, in particular, are being transformed by increasing use of sensors which are utilised to monitor facilities that are spread out over large distances. As sensors become cheaper, far more are being deployed. Berg Insight, for example, forecasts that the number of M2M connected devices in the oil & gas industry will triple from 423,000 in 2013, to 1.12 million by 2018. Firms have been using remote sensors for basics such as monitoring temperature, flow rate or viscosity for some time, but increasingly they’re also using them for more demanding applications ranging from more realtime monitoring, to automatic ordering of consumables such as fuel, to tracking equipment and even workers.
As business and operational performance becomes more dependent on technology, the technology itself is becoming more dependent upon the network to be effective. “Today, technology advancement is one of the biggest drivers in deciding whether a network upgrade is needed,” RigNet’s Brooks Albery told us. “Basic network capabilities and quality, along with the economic cross- over points that drive choices between network technologies, are changing at a pace where close monitoring of a customer’s network and network choices are imperative.” Inmarsat’s Gerbrand Schalkwijk agreed, noting that new technology is driving the demand for more bandwidth which, in turn, drives the requirement for network improvement. “Bandwidth requirements will double between now and 2020,” he commented “with both crew welfare and operational issues driving that increase.” Schalkwijk noted that while firms want to track more and more things, they also want to bring the resulting data back to central locations. “This trend is not just driven by operational reasoning but also because firms now want to keep specialists onshore out of harm’s way,” added Inmarsat’s Mike Korotinsky. “These specialists are highly valuable, and companies also have to ensure they make best use of their time.” As oil & gas companies struggle with recruitment, M2M applications are plugging the hole, remotely monitoring equipment to reduce the number of site visits required and bridging the knowledge gaps that are opening up as older workers retire and take manual expertise with them. But what implications does all of this have for the remote network? What technologies will deliver the kind of performance required? Schalkwijk said that companies obviously need to focus on performance but also on factors such as reliability, security, mobility, globality and scalability. “The global and mobile aspects can easily be overlooked but are key,” he said. “Global scale on the supply side is important, because it means wherever a company operates in the world they can use the same equipment, configurations and settings, and offer the same user experience”. He noted that if a rig or other equipment is moved or re- used in another region, global solutions and mobility mean that everything is portable and can be up and running again quickly.
Selecting the right mix
Schalkwijk doesn’t think there is necessarily a universal best mix of technologies, but rather that the right mix depends on the environment and the needs of the company. “The exact technology choice depends on the circumstances,” he said; “solutions are often bespoke, and communications service providers usually need
to combine solutions and infrastructure to get the level of reliability and SLAs required.” Tim Passingham, SVP of enterprise and government business for EMEA at Level 3
Communications, commented that while terrestrial fibre is increasingly available in far more remote locations than has traditionally been possible, a hybrid approach is the way forward: "Level 3 has been providing terrestrial fibre networks to businesses operating in remote places for years and has seen enormous growth in demand for bandwidth from the oil and gas industry. A blend of satellite and fibre communications is essential. Often satellite will be used to support the initial exploration of new resources, as the oil and gas companies explore more locations. But fibre networks offer the security and scalable infrastructure needed when investing heavily in specific locations long- term. “Fibre better enables the digital oilfield and remote operations but, whilst increasingly available in more remote locations, it obviously isn’t available everywhere, so oil and gas companies need partners like Level 3 that can offer both services.”
“Technology is revolutionising the business but firms need to keep business realities in mind.”
RigNet’s Albery agreed that hybrid network solutions are beginning to dominate customer choices. “They allow companies to attain superior user experience by combining network technologies in ways that maximize the benefits of the underlying technologies,” he said. “As an example, user networks combining high through- put satellites for bandwidth-intensive crew welfare applications, Kuband VSAT for primary remote voice and data, and L- band VSAT for the critical service availability, and for comms on the move, make the best use of all three network technology choices.” Passingham explained how in late 2013 Level 3 delivered terrestrial services over fibre to a substantial mine in Zambia for a large Canadian mining company First
Quantum Minerals ( FQML). The company operates in remote locations around the world, where reliable communications are either limited or non- existent. FQML, a long- term customer of Level 3, wanted to consolidate a number of its legacy communication providers globally, linking offices and data centres in Europe, North America and Canada to operations in remotes parts of Finland and Australia. Level 3 also provided FQML with satellite communications for exploring resources in Africa. “The satellite is swapped for fibre if a long- term investment is made in a certain location” said Passingham. “This marks a significant change in the way extractive industries can receive connectivity, as prior to this businesses in remote areas were reliant on satellite links alone.”
The managed service
In contrast, one of RigNet’s clients is a major global offshore drilling contractor, which uses a RigNet fully managed solution for its remote communications services at its ultra- deepwater semisubmersible drilling rig in the Barents Sea. This comprises an end- to- end IP network solution using VSAT technology for lastmile connectivity, which includes VoIP, enterprise data and internet access services supported by 24/ 7 network monitoring and support, with backhaul to the company's offices via MPLS connection. Using a managed solution, said Avery, is useful to ensure that the rig derives greater value from network services through increased standardization and innovation. “There are, undoubtedly, many technical solutions available, but firms need to consider if their chosen solutions are truly reliable and global, and whether their supplier can support their needs throughout the end- to- end lifecycle of the field,” said Schalkwijk. “Technology is revolutionising the business but firms need to keep business realities in mind. They don’t want to pay double as the data doubles. So affordability is also a key consideration.”