With the exploration and drilling companies seeking to remotely manage their sites, the oil and gas sector is experiencing a burgeoning demand for high-bandwidth applications, says Keith Johnson, president, energy division, Harris Caprock in an interview with SatellitePro Middle East.
The growing need for bandwidth in the energy sector
“I have been in this industry for 25 years and I can see that communications has gone through an amazing transformation even within the satellite industry. If we go back even 10 years, a typical site required 256Kbs at the most. But now, many of our offshore facilities require 2Mbps, and some of them go up to 4Mbps. So there has been an exponential growth in the amount of data that is generated in some of the more complex facilities.
“There are advances in the way communication is managed both at the remote site and on the satellite, so you get more efficiency and faster throughput. More recently, in terms of a leap change is the desire among the oil and gas and drilling companies to remotely automate
and manage their sites. This requirement has grown tremendously over the last several years.
“They are putting more advanced technology on the rig, so that they don’t need to have as many people on the site. These new applications that allow for remote monitoring, require more bandwidth. Sometimes on a deepwater platform, the drilling companies have to invest up to a million dollars or in excess of that, in additional equipment, to allow for this remote management capability.
“The other change that has taken place is in the realm of crew morale. There has been a real push to provide basic connectivity out of these remote sites. It is no longer about just making a call. Employees want to Skype and so on, and providing these services to the entire crew becomes bandwidth demanding. It is a constant challenge for these companies to invest in additional bandwidth to ensure high crew morale and thus retain personnel.
“More recently, because of the Gulf of Mexico incident, safety requirements are becoming even more rigorous. Data replication and storage of critical data is becoming a strong requirement among oil exploration companies. We anticipate that other regions and governments will adopt these new regulations that require the rig operators to undertake more sophisticated management of data that is produced at the site and are required to store the data in such a manner that it can be retrieved when called for.
While there will be an improvement in safety standards, it might become cost prohibitive for some of these companies to operate in this region. “We are working with our customers on how best they can store and manage their data, including working on a system of metadata tagging for streamlined retrieval of data. Part of the question going forward will relate to the quantum of data storage the government is going to require the oil exploration companies to sustain – will it be data gathered over the previous week, or year? Regulations are still being developed and we don’t have firm answers yet.”
Innovative solutions on rigs
“The oil and gas customer does use cloud computing, but we don’t see the technology being used extensively when it comes to real-time drilling applications. Today we see it being used for mail services, and for disaster recovery backup systems. We have a cloud computing and cyber security centre and we have some pilots under way for our drilling customers. They are trying to see how best to use the technology.
“One of the current trends is when there is a large concentration of personnel on a facility that requires a high amount of bandwidth, submarine fibre is being deployed. This solution is being driven by bandwidth demands on deep water facilities and needs to be justified in terms of usage. The goal is to reduce personnel and to be able to manage and monitor these facilities remotely. We own and operate submarine fibre networks and currently it is a niche sector. If we look at the industry at large, satellite is still the predominant provider and even in the cases where submarine fibre is deployed, VSAT is used as backup in case there is a break in the fibre.
“From a terrestrial standpoint, fibre is inevitable – but we are seeing an interesting trend along West Africa. Though the major cities have fibre, the challenge remains with the ‘last mile’. Due to security reasons or other factors, companies are not able to get fibre to their facilities. So satellite is an option because companies will then have the antenna within their facility and that lends a greater degree of comfort. So despite the expansion of fibre networks, there will always be a demand for satellite-based communications.
“Another trend that we are excited about is remote telemedicine. We are partnering with companies to provide that. In Brazil, for instance, every rig in the coming years will require remote telemedicine facilities.
“In remote areas, it is challenging to provide a high level of service at a low cost. These are difficult-to-reach locations and you need people and spares available to ensure uptime. Though communications systems on a rig is a critical differentiator in terms of working efficiency of the rig, the outlay, even if you include all the IT infrastructure and satellite capacity usage, is probably less than 1% of what it costs to operate a deep water facility that would have close to a billion dollars in equipment.”
Growth in the MENA region
“We definitely see the MENA region as a growth area. I would estimate that MENA accounts for 30 to 40% of our energy revenues. We work closely with satellite operators to ensure we have capacity. We also track drilling activities. Like we say in the industry, it is the exploration and production companies that decide where the next drilling operation is going to take place next. Until they decide to spend money on exploration, the rest of us are really in a holding position. We grew at 12% last year and we see those trends sustaining in the future.
“This is an exciting twime to be in the industry with the emergence of Ka-band and new cost-effective technologies. We have been told that we are probably the largest bandwidth provider in our segment. We are engaged with virtually every satellite operator and while we have a tremendous amount of cost associated with satellite bandwidth, we have a dedicated team to manage and monitor our satellite capacity and to ensure that our customers have hat they need to continue to operate.”