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February 11, 2015

Bringing offshore into 4G connectivity

Reliable, high-speed communications technologies are transforming the offshore environment, improving the day to day lives of offshore workers. Having just established its first 4G network for Shell on the Norwegian continental shelf, Maritime Communication Partner explains what better connectivity will mean for the offshore sector.

By Adam Leach

Druagen field]

From autonomous drones monitoring the seafloor to advanced drilling rigs sending back detailed information to the drilling platform, offshore operations are becoming ever more interconnected. With GSN and satellite based networks both costly and restricted, telecoms specialist MCP is branching out of cruise ship communications to offer 4G connectivity to offshore operators. Chief strategy officer, Tom Løwehr explains where the company is focusing its attention and what benefits it will provide.

Adam Leach: What attracted MCP to the offshore sector?

Tom Løwehr: Our history is cruise ships over GSM and satellite, going into the offshore business it is about 4G non-satellite, so it is a different business line for us but it is operating in our home market, in the first phase on the Norwegian shelf at least. Also, NCP is a TeleNor subsidiary and that is operating 16 GSM base stations and the plan is to upgrade those from 2G to 4G and we will start offering 4G and GSM data connectivity.

AL: What enables you to establish 4G networks across offshore operations?

TL: A lot of these platforms have fibre access to shore, which means that the backhaul capacity is there and we can start building 4G networks. A few places are still connected via microwave but in general it’s a solid fibre network.

AL: What regions are you focusing on to establish connectivity?

TL: If you look at a map of all the continental shelf’s and all the different clusters of petroleum activity, you have the North Sea where you have the Norwegian sector, the British sector, a small Danish sector and the Dutch sector, which is one area and then you’re moving North up to the Norwegian Sea and further north to the Barents Sea and more Arctic areas. We will build a 4G network for all these areas and we have put our first into operation on 15th December ago on the Draugen platform operated by Shell in the Norwegian Sea.

We have handshakes with other operators to install 4G so we will roll it out during the first half of next year. We will not cover the whole Norwegian shelf but we cover all the clusters and the sailing routes for the supply vessels. When the supply vessels are leaving port they will connect to the MCP network and will have a seamless connection to the oil field from port.

AL: How will the cost of 4G compare with the current technology?

TL: It will mean significant cost savings for the vessel operators and rig owners as satellite connectivity is far more expensive than a 4G network. The pricing will be different offshore compared to land based networks because it is more expensive to operate out there but it will be significantly cheaper and it will have much higher capacity, up to about 70mb covering about 70km out from the platform.

AL: What opportunities will better connectivity enable for offshore operators?

TL: It will provide better support for what Shell call the digital oilfield and Statoil calls integrated operations. Using communication as a productivity tool, especially at the moment with the oil price declining, is important. You have more focus on how to connect the supply vessels, inspection and maintenance and repair vessels and the rigs and the platforms. To connect all of these and integrating it into the operation requires this type of communication services.

AL: What are the major operational benefits?

TL: The other big area for cost saving is on the drilling rigs. Around the platform you may have one or more rigs drilling all the time. Today, they are connected by microwave so they have fairly good connectivity between the platform and the rigs but the problem is that they are moved quite frequently and every time they are moved they lose connection. Operators then need to redirect the microwave and report the new position to the authorities, which is actually quite bureaucratic. With the 4G network, they will be connected all the time, even during the moving stage, which will avoid all the costs of the redirecting.

AL: How will it change the interaction between operators and contractors in the oil field?

"Whether you’re working for Statoil, BP or ConocoPhillips you will still be connected to the same network."

TL: You have a combination of the long term contracts between the operators and the rig owners and the supply vessel owners and you also have a huge kind of stock market for those services. You have drilling rigs coming in for a month or two before moving to another oil field for another operator and it will be much simpler organise that if you have one common mobile operator out there because everybody will be connected to the network. Whether you’re working for Statoil, BP or ConocoPhillips you will still be connected to the same network. It will ease operations.

AL: Will it impact subsea operations?

TL: Operators will be able to connect the other devices that they have out there for operations. Typically, you have a lot of remote operated vehicles operating on the bottom for subsea operations. They have control units is basically a container that sits on the deck of a platform for a period of time. At the moment, they are connected by cables, but with the network you can just put an antenna on the container and it will be connected automatically and you will be up and running.

AL: How will you ensure that the network doesn’t go offline?

TL: The network has reliability which is 99.99%. If a base station or antenna goes down, there will be in-built redundancy, where other sectors will take over. In most cases you will have coverage from two platforms, if one of them is out for some reason, the vessel will then connect to another platform, because the networks are to a large extent overlapping. When we talk to the operators, they of course have requirements for reliability, so we need to have uptime and capacity that can support the traffic that will be there. If we have multiple rigs operating at the same time in the same area, we need to have enough capacity to handle the traffic. It’s a smart network that we are building. This is not for the kids, it is for professional users.

AL: What cyber security measures will be taken?

TL: It’s sensitive data, especially during exploration where you have seismic data, so you have all the security and mitigation that you can put on. The network will be able to support it, but it will be the operator’s security policy that they will implement. Our job is to build the connectivity that can support that activity.

AL: What impact will it have on the lives of offshore workers outside of work?

TL: It’s down to the different policies of the operators on how they separate welfare traffic from operational, but normally they are very eager to offer a decent connectivity to the workers. To that extent, the people on the platforms have that today through Wi-Fi and those kinds of things, but on the rigs and on the vessels it’s quite different with limited capacities. It will improve that significantly. You could compare it with having to go to an internet cafe, where you don’t have the privacy, with actually being able to bring your own device and connect to talk to your friends and family.

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