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Satellite Communications for Mines 

 
Author: Phil Thomas - New Era Systems, Inc.

August 2012

Summary

This review explores the use of satellite services for communication at mine sites. It explains the difference between shared and dedicated bandwidth, mobile satellite service, fixed base installation, and discusses how much bandwidth is needed.

INTRODUCTION

I doubt that anybody will express surprise when I state that mines are typically located in remote and inhospitable parts of the world. This very remoteness is their greatest obstacle to communication because they are beyond the reach of mobile phones and outside of terrestrial Internet range.

These communication problems could pose real financial hardship for the mine operators and they increase the sense of remoteness and separation for the expatriate employees at the site.

Satellite communication is the only practical way of opening up these locations for communication with the outside world. Satellite systems, like many forms of technology, come in different forms, some of which are very suitable, while others would be troublesome and lead to frustration at the mines and with the mine owners.


WOULD A MINE SITE CHOOSE SHARED BANDWIDTH OR DEDICATED BANDWIDTH?

There are two major types of satellite service; we group them broadly into two categories, shared bandwidth and dedicated bandwidth. The two terms are self explanatory, with shared bandwidth the satellite link is shared with five, ten, twenty or even fifty other users - as you can imagine this is a cheaper service, but when everybody in the shared network needs service at the same time, the response is poor.

We only recommend shared bandwidth for entities that have infrequent needs, if the network is busy at any time; they are flexible and can wait until a later time of day when the congestion is less. This is not a system for our mining clients!

We offer our mining clients a superior service called dedicated bandwidth. We have never yet found a mine operator, who will say, the networks busy I think I'll try later - on the contrary we have to offer instant, continuous and high quality satellite service.

The highest quality service available by satellite is SCPC (this is the technical term for dedicated.) In this environment when a client books a link of say 1024 by 512 Kb they are guaranteed to get all of that bandwidth, all of the time. Naturally this is the most expensive of all products, but there is no telephone company or ISP that would choose anything else. Quality is guaranteed!


MOBILE SATELLITE SERVICE OR FIXED BASE INSTALLATION?

Television broadcast trucks can go anywhere instantly, and in many ways they would be ideal for exploration teams, the trucks could follow the team around providing instant connection to the base camp or head office. The one problem with this type of package is that a fully equipped vehicle will cost a minimum of $100,000. Also these vehicles are not ideal off-road transportation, and let's face it, you seldom explore in areas where there are paved roads.

If mobile service is a necessity, we can offer a cheaper and more rugged alternative - we can mount a satellite system on a trailer with high ground clearance, as shown on the right. It can be towed to a new location, stabilized and ready to communicate within thirty minutes.

Although these systems are much more expensive than fixed base antenna systems, they do a very important job when mobile communications are needed.

When the mine base is established the solution is to install a fixed antenna system, typically these systems sit on a concrete mounted post as close to the equipment room as possible.

This type of system is not mobile, but is intended for long term deployment, and provides the mine with a communication hub for telephony, internet, or a Virtual Private Network between the mine and the mine head office.

The larger fixed base dishes are more economical than the smaller systems. It is a strange fact that transmitting to a small dish requires more power than transmitting to a large dish and so the satellite owners charge more for the bandwidth when they connect to small dishes, so it is in the best interest of the mine to migrate to the fixed dish platform as soon as practical.


WIRELESS THROUGHOUT THE MINE SITE?

A satellite system only has a few parts; there is the dish, the satellite radio, an LNB, a modem and a router. The outside dish holding the radio and LNB is connected by cables to a satellite modem and router in the equipment room, and I suppose that anybody who needs computer connection could set up a desk in the equipment room and plug in there, but let's face it that's not a great idea.

So we have many computers sitting around the base, and we have to devise a way to connect them to the router in the satellite equipment room.

If the distances are short, we would string cables from building to building and connect a Wi-Fi Access Point allowing laptops or desktops easy access to the satellite provided internet.

If the distance between offices is measured in KM instead of meters then we have to implement a radio linkage between the buildings. Whether it's a cable connection or a radio connection all offices will have access to Internet and Telephony.


HOW MUCH BANDWIDTH DO I NEED?

This is a question that we always hate to answer. There are so many variables, are you transmitting large data files, how many telephone calls will be in session at the busy hour, how many computers will be connected at the same time.

All of these items contribute to bandwidth needs. If you don't have sufficient bandwidth then internet response is slow, voice conversations are garbled and files take a long time to transfer.

We have to walk a fine line when we designing the satellite equipment package, if a client says that they only need 512Kb then we could sell them a 2.4M dish with a 5 Watt radio, but then if they double their needs in the first few months, that radio would be too small and we would have to sell them a 10 watt radio. Nobody likes to hear that their almost new equipment is obsolete, and so we try to guess how much they might expand, and be ready for it.

I used the term "Fine Line" because we could specify a much larger system at the outset, but larger means more costly. If we sell a 3.8M 40 watt system at the start, then its transmitting capacity will never be exceeded, but suppose that the 512Kb client never does expand, then in that case they have paid $15,000 more than they needed to.

We can estimate how much a client needs today, based on the information that they give us, but it's the expansion factor that worries us. This is where the guesswork comes in.


I'M OPERATING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE KALAHARI DESERT AND MY MODEM HAS FAILED

It's true that the minimum warranty on new satellite equipment is twelve months, but considering where these systems are deployed, weather conditions and poor power supply takes its toll on even the best of equipment, and when one piece in the chain fails the complete communication system is down.

On hearing client's bad news we can normally get a new part packed and shipped within a day, but because of the remote location of our client it is unlikely that they will see the part in less than one week.

So we preach about redundancy. We push as hard as we can to make the client buy two of everything, then when disaster strikes they will be running again in a few hours. Double everything does not apply to the dish, because the dish is passive and should not fail.

Although, one of sites was taken out because somebody drove a tank over the dish, but fortunately most mine sites use a less aggressive form of transportation!


MY PEOPLE ARE MINE ENGINEERS NOT TELEPORT OPERATORS

Although some clients have their own installers, most of them would rather leave the task to professional installers. We have installers that travel to Africa and the Americas to install satellite systems.

An experienced installer will have the satellite system in full operation with 48 hours of arriving, providing that some basic work has been accomplished in advance.

The secondary benefit to flying in a professional is that during the installation process he will train the mine employees in basic maintenance of the site. This is very helpful if minor problems occur down the road. The trained employee can normally pin-point the problem and allow the US based teleport staff an easy way to perform the fix.


CONCLUSION - WHAT DOES SATELLITE COMMUNICATION OFFER?

It goes without saying that a satellite connection provides access to the Internet, but what else? What other features allow a mine owner direct control of the remote property?

Information flow from the mine to the Head Office and the reverse is essential to management of the remote property. Using a system called FTP, head office or the mine site can send photographs, PDF's, WORD documents, Excel spreadsheets. Anything that you have stored on your computer can be quickly transferred in either direction. Sending a spread sheet from a manager to head office is as simple as dragging it to a remote folder on the HQ computer. The FTP program takes care of the transfer; an easy process.

Telephone connections via satellite can make the mine office appear as a series of extensions on the Head Office PBX. Employees at the mine can be limited to calling within extensions of the PBX, or they can be allowed access to the public telephone network, effectively calling to any number in the world.

Email and Instant messenger work perfectly over a satellite connection and employees value these connections to stay in contact with their families.


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