Remote exploration: the changing world of satellite communications

Paul Boughton

In what is a highly data-intensive industry, ships once had to collect seismic and other exploration data and bring it back with them when the ship next docked in port. But, as the search for oil and gas moves into deeper waters, satellite technology is the only realistic option for communication. Simon Watts reports.

As with many other industries, the world of communications in supporting the oil and gas industry is developing rapidly, both in terms of the users' needs and the technologies capable of meeting the sector's constantly evolving demands.

With near-shore exploration in areas such as the North Sea, the requirements are broadly in line with those of most data-intensive industries.

As fibre links can be placed alongside pipelines linking oil or gas rigs with the mainland, terrestrial solutions form the primary underlying communications technology, with satellite and microwave used as a back-up as required.

Deeper waters

As we move towards exploration in deeper waters and more remote geographies, the communications landscape changes completely.

Where it is commercially or technically unfeasible to lay fibre optic cable or use long-haul microwave connections, satellite becomes the only viable option. It is here that the demand of the oil and gas industry differs the most from other commercial users of telecommunications technologies.

Historically, ships had to collect seismic and other exploration data and bring it back with them when they next docked in port - a slow process and one with potentially significant commercial implications.

Ku-band-based solutions

The market took a quantum leap forward with the emergence of Inmarsat-type satellite technologies and has moved on again with the latest Ku-band-based solutions offering a faster, fixed price broadband service.

Critically, for both the vessel owner and individual crew member, the expansion of Ku-band brings voice and data performance much closer to the established ADSL communications quality users are used to back home on land. And, as Ku-band delivery becomes faster, cheaper and more readily available in remoter corners of the globe, so associated usage will increase.

Upload capacity

One area in which the exploration industry is unlike many other sectors is in the flow of data. In most IT applications, more data travels from the centre to outlying locations, such as regional offices or manufacturing units.

However, in the oil and gas industry, large volumes of raw geological and SCADA (supervisory and data acquisition) type data is transmitted from rigs and exploration vessels to each company's data centre. Equally, relatively little data flows back from the centre and when it does, it usually relates to confirming precise details as to where to focus local exploration efforts based on an analysis of that data.

Unlike most satellite-based solutions which are data centre-centric therefore, here most of the required bandwidth is at each of the remote locations.

A standard enterprise-grade service focused on the data centre will be unsuitable in such an environment: what is required is a solution which can offer a Quality of Service (QoS) with large upload capacity.

As a result, the typical satellite-based solution deployed by oil and gas companies today is a single carrier per channel (SCPC) solution - in effect, a 'leased line in the sky'.

Changing needs

Until now this has been a primarily commercial decision based on the needs of the broader business. However, more recently, there has been increasing pressure to provide communications solutions which also meet the social needs of employees, by making Internet access and video-conferencing, for example, readily available at an individual level.

With staff away from home for many weeks at a time, this has become a critical factor in the ability to recruit highly-skilled staff. Put simply, without offering such personal communication links as part of the employment contract, the ability to recruit the best people can be severely restricted.

Such concerns are similarly paramount in the recruitment of employees for tankers and exploration ships travelling huge distances and to even more remote parts of the globe.

Here, both commercial and social criteria demand solutions that provide truly global network coverage, with a breadth of communications functionality and capability significantly beyond that legally required for tracking purposes.

In meeting this demand, solutions are now available offering C-band and Ku-band Internet access coverage for commercial shipping on a global basis.

The ability to meet both commercial and social imperatives on a global scale has also become more important as companies are having to push the boundaries of exploration.

As those natural resources which are most readily accessible are near exhaustion, companies have to extend their search and reach in ever-more remote locations, both at sea and on land. In facing greater physical, geological and political challenges in these new areas of exploration, certainty of communication becomes even more important.

Optimising bandwidth

Oil and gas companies are not immune from the intense financial pressure which continue to result from the current economic downturn and so need to make the most of the bandwidth available to them.

Most companies today typically have a dedicated communications link to each rig or ship. This is where the potential exists to optimise bandwidth performance by sharing connectivity between multiple remote sites and the data centre.

So, if each individual rig, for example, uses 2Mbps of connectivity five times per day, it may be possible to share that bandwidth between, say 10 rigs, so requiring a substantially lower investment. The big issue for any exploration company is that of bandwidth cost, so by moving away from a dedicated to a shared resource, provides the opportunity to make much better use of existing bandwidth.

For many, the move away from a bottom-up, per-rig to a top-down, fleet-based approach may require a fundamental change of mindset: however, the potential savings in sharing in-route communications are substantial.

Though the initial cost of a shared solution will be slightly higher compared to a SCPC solution, the medium to long-term savings on bandwidth will far outweigh any additional initial upfront investment.

There is another change which companies should consider when selecting the most appropriate and cost-effective satellite-based solution. Historically, in an industry with unique demands on data communications, not surprisingly, sector-specific solutions have had inherent advantages over generic, off-the-shelf competitors capable of limited personalisation at best to meet the needs of an individual end-user.

However, with the level of investment in such broader solutions far outpacing that of their niche counterparts in making these more stable and cost-efficient, it is fair to say that in some cases the generic solution will now outperform custom build products. As a result, for those oil and gas companies that have in the past selected specially developed communications solutions, now may be the time to take a fresh look at what the market has to offer.

And of course, in such a mission-critical area in which the data is the business, it is equally essential to have total confidence in the financial robustness and quality of support of any provider claiming to offer a truly global communications network.

Looking ahead

Providers of satellite technologies face a constant battle to keep up with the oil and gas industry's insatiable appetite for bandwidth, as the volume of data derived from remote locations and fed into data centres continues to grow exponentially. The resulting challenge for providers is to meet these increasing capacity demands, at the same time providing a robust service at competitive cost.

One example of this is the addition of global C-band coverage for the deep blue oceans, building on the extension of Ku-band broadband services to coastal waters.

Looking ahead, the next move is already underway - from Ku-band to Ka-band - in looking to further increase bandwidth without a parallel increase in price, it is likely to be four years or more before Ka-band is commonly available for ships and oil and gas platforms in near coastal waters.

Having said that, the industry will continue to put pressure on providers to drive such technology improvements as quickly as possible, as faster voice and data speeds deliver immediate and substantial benefits in terms of lower cost and better performance.

Simon Watts is chief engineer, Hughes Europe, Milton Keynes, UK.

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