RigNet is a global provider of managed remote communications, telecoms systems integration and collaborative applications dedicated to the oil and gas industry. Established in 2001, the company is based in Houston, Texas, US, and serves over 1,100 remote sites in over 45 countries on six continents.

Brooks Albery is director of products and marketing at RigNet, having previously spent 19 years at US telecommunications company Sprint and four years at Stratos Global in product management and marketing roles.

Prior to joining RigNet in 2011 as director of satellite services and technology, Peter C Malcolm was formerly the vice-president of engineering and operations at Blue Marble Network, and has over 30 years of experience in international satellite communications.

Julian Turner: What are the main challenges of providing communication networks in the Arctic?

Brooks Albery and Peter C Malcolm: Matching the correct satellite characteristics with the right remote very small aperture terminal (VSAT) equipment and system design is critical to ensure a highly reliable service. For Arctic installations, we focus on broadband VSAT terminals connected to major telecom data centres via terrestrial multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks and then from there to our customer’s offices around the world.

"The extreme temperatures and sustained high wind speeds in the Arctic require that VSAT antennas, integrated electronic amplifiers and signal processing systems be ruggedised and protected from the elements."

Broadband telecom satellites generally operate from geostationary orbit above the equator. So the further north the VSAT customer is located from the equator, the lower the VSAT’s elevation or ‘look angle’ is to the spacecraft. Essentially, the low look angle and the local topology reduce the number of satellites visible from Arctic locations. The lower elevation also requires the signal to travel much longer distances through the atmosphere, decreasing the signal strength received from the satellite.

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JT: Can you tell us about RigNet’s recent contract with a major drilling contractor in the Barents Sea?

BA and PM: RigNet renewed a contract with a leading drilling company to expand the managed network communications solutions for two ultra-deepwater semi-submersibles, including replacing an existing VSAT and on-board telecom system for a platform. The original design was supposed to have been able to operate in all environments, but after several months in the Barents Sea, multiple failures in various subsystems rendered the VSAT and the rig’s local network untenable.

RigNet successfully upgraded the VSAT bandwidth to 8Mbps full duplex for drilling operations close to 74 degrees North in the Barents Sea with high uptime of 99.6% or better. An additional 25Mbps service for the Arctic region is also being tested. Using these VSAT services, RigNet provides corporate/welfare WAN optimisation, IP Phones, in/out-door Wi-Fi, Snap-TV and onboard mail servers in order to ensure that these rigs in the Barents Sea have the best available remote collaboration tools for offshore workers.

RigNet delivers a fully-managed end-to-end IP network solution using VSAT technology for last-mile connectivity. Our fully managed network solution provides rigs with greater value from network services through innovation and increased standardisation. The solutions are supported by 24/7 network monitoring and support from RigNet’s Network Operations Centre and, if required, local field technician support, with backhaul to the firm’s offices via MPLS connection.

JT: Can you tell us about the technology solutions used to ensure secure and high-performance network communications?

BA and PM: The basic back-office demands remain unchanged, but remote collaboration and crew welfare demands are escalating. Getting the right space segment in the RigNet inventory is key – as is the right operational support from our bases in Aberdeen and Stavanger – and engineering talent to design, install, and service customers is also a critical requirement for success in the Arctic.

The extreme temperatures and sustained high wind speeds in the Arctic require that VSAT antennas, integrated electronic amplifiers and signal processing systems be ruggedised and protected from the elements, a much more demanding engineering and design exercise than in other parts of the world.

During the recent Barents Sea project, we installed a 2.4m antenna with both Ku- and C-Band radio electronics amplifiers and frequency converters to ensure the remote collaboration solutions would truly operate globally. In the future, the rig will be able to operate with over 100 different commercial satellites.

The topside superstructures and drill rig may interfere with the line of sight (LOS) to the satellite, causing signal outage or degradation. To avoid this, a second 2.4m antenna was installed on the opposite side of the rig and fitted with an identical radio package. This way, when a LOS obstruction occurs, the signal is transferred between antennas to maintain communications continuity.

"For Arctic installations, we focus on broadband VSAT terminals connected to major telecom data centres via terrestrial multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) networks."

Both antennas are protected from the elements by a 3.6m radome, with specialty materials that prevent icing while providing a very low signal loss. Both radomes were mounted on customised steel skids – which can be removed if needed – and then outfitted with a special, pressurised heating and temperature control system (air conditioning), which also helps prevent corrosion caused by ocean air salinity. While the idea of air conditioning in the Arctic might seem fanciful, excessive heat induces thermal noise within the amplifiers, robbing the system of its signal quality, and therefore must be mitigated.

The rig’s original coaxial cable system was scrapped and replaced with a custom-designed fibre-optic cabling and power distribution system. The radio amplifiers were also replaced with new sold-state power models generating four times the original signal strength, yet they consume less onboard power.

RigNet installed a data centre-grade equipment cabinet with a new uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and power distribution system. The UPS operates at 100% power load for all rack components – including antenna tracking, router, satellite modems, and Cisco switches for up to four hours.

JT: How can communications networks make life easier for crew members in the frozen north?

BA and PM: Replicating as closely as possible the standard onshore data and entertainment options available for crew members is becoming more critical for attaining crew welfare goals. The rig was of an older design from the late 1990s and the customer wanted every cabin to have a private line. To improve conditions, RigNet installed a Cisco Call Manager system with several large switches to accommodate over 100 separate voice lines and each cabin was fitted with multi-function voice over internet protocol (VoIP) handsets with cable plug-ins for private internet access. The system proved so popular that we upgraded the entire network, increasing the satellite link from 4Mbps to 8Mbps. The improved network capacity allowed the customer to add SNAP-TV to the system, significantly expanding crew entertainment options.

The rig’s local area network (LAN) is segregated by network traffic type into several ‘company’ and ‘crew’ virtual LANs supporting data, voice, and video. The call management system now supports corporate off-premise extension with five or six digit dialling from anywhere in the world.

Several internet kiosks were created by the operator that supports dozens of simultaneous users, plus indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi systems were added along with wireless handsets.

Another great feature introduced by the customer was to provide key personnel smart tablets loaded with company proprietary applications. Crew members can now roam the vessel – and with the exception of sensitive operating areas where wireless is not allowed – crew members can file reports, review work orders and even respond to e-mail and messaging systems wherever they are aboard the rig.

JT: What new offshore projects and technology innovations is RigNet currently involved in?

BA and PM: RigNet is involved with significant projects around the globe including the RigNet TSI (Telecoms Systems Integration) organisation, which provides large scale engineering, integration and project delivery services. In support and recognition of our rapid growth over the last several years, RigNet negotiated expanded agreements with the major space segment providers earlier this year.

"One great feature introduced by the customer was to provide key personnel smart tablets loaded with company proprietary applications."

On the new technology front, RigNet is working with key suppliers to bring the new high throughput satellite (HTS) technologies to the oil and gas vertical in 2015, including Inmarsat’s Global Xpress, the O3B MEO satellite platform and the Intelsat EPIC service. Adding these VSAT services to the existing stable of C-Band, Ku-Band, and L-band services is all part of RigNet’s goal to provide the broadest portfolio of services to our customers.

We will also be expanding and standardising its portfolio of traffic management services, which combine service platforms into fully managed kits that ensure unsurpassed operational up-time.

JT: How do you see the oil and gas communications market evolving in the short to mid-term?

BA and PM: The oil and gas industry will continue to see growth in bandwidth demands, and crew welfare and health, safety and environment (HS&E) will also drive bandwidth requirements.

RigNet will be adding the new high throughput satellite (HTS) solutions to its portfolio of products in 2015. Trends in automation, remote collaboration and remote office applications will continue to evolve. The recent dip in oil pricing notwithstanding, demand for oil and gas will continue to push drilling and production operations into increasingly remote and harsh environments like the Arctic.

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