Robert G. Burke Special Correspondent
About the time a new service becomes accepted by everyone in the offshore business, a supplier comes along with a better solution.
Satcom, as those who work closely with the systems call it, has now penetrated into offshore oil and gas operations so deeply that hardly any rig, platform, ship, barge, or boat is without the service. The trend now is to improve what's out there, organize the equipment to give better service, or make things cheaper. It's that last item that gets the most attention among oil and gas operators, who pay the bill.
The idea of combining equipment and services for special and unique purposes is not new, but today's range of materials, availability of new electronic gear, and versatility of software proliferate widely – and change the way that rigs and platforms, boats and barges, function at sea and stay in contact with shore.
What is new and challenging is the introduction of onshore service centers that receive huge volumes of data, process and store it, and incorporate it into daily business operations. With the spread of these stations, new ones appearing regularly, covering nearly all the continents, the need for fast, reliable, and secure communications across the globe has mushroomed, and there's hardly an end in sight.
Four of the largest oilfield service and supply companies – Schlumberger, Halliburton, Baker Hughes and National Oilwell – have opened onshore data centers catering to drilling and production operations. These processing and storage points are based mostly in what's come to be called the oil centers of the world: Houston, New Orleans, Aberdeen, London, and Singapore.
At least one new company, Visean, based in Melbourne, southern Australia, and active now mainly in Asia and America, specializes in collecting and organizing data from drilling and production sites, even from deep inside the hole. Data is then stored at onshore sites where it is readily available to clients and authorized contractors. Halliburton Sperry-Sun's Insite program, National Oilwell's Hawk (including WebDriller and Decision Center), and Baker Hughes RigLink provide similar services. Dozens of other new suppliers and processors stand ready to leap into the fray or assist in these efforts. But key to these growing operations is good communications.
Morten Haugan, chief administrative officer for RigNet, Inc. of Houston, a communications solutions provider for rigs and platforms, describes a typical layout for a jackup rig used until recently. "Satellite providers usually set up a link for 64-kbps data rate, maybe two analog telephones, no voice mail, a fax link, and no videoconferencing. That's it."
Current packages include much more, ex-plains Haugan. "We put at least 128 kbps for data, up to 10 or 20 digital phones scattered about, voice mail features, conference calls and directory services, plus multiple wireless access points at selected places on the rig, from client offices to the drilling floor. When a company man or contractor arrives at the rig, he can instantly connect to his home office or the Internet. All a laptop needs is an 802.11b wireless card that can be purchased at computer stores for less than $50."
With wireless access, people can walk around, go nearly anywhere on the rig, and stay in contact by cordless phone with shore bases, says Haugan. "Engineers and geologists use calculators on a laptop, tap into remote data bases, and solve problems right on the drill floor."
Videoconferencing can be installed anywhere just as easily. Vic Terro, manager of video solutions for Sola Communications, Inc., of Lafayette, Louisiana, specializes in digital video recording. "We have one client who placed 18 cameras in a single field off Trinidad," he says. Sola installs access control systems, area alarms, short-haul fiber networks, remotely controlled gates, and safety systems for the Gulf of Mexico.
"Ultimate goal for oil companies is remote control of drilling operations from shore," says RigNet's Lars Eliassen. "Shore-based experts will, over time, shift from a support role to control of operations on multiple rigs from a central control center. Studies show it's already feasible to remotely control, for example, rotating equipment, valves, and measuring devices from shore. It's more efficient to do that from a central land location staffed by drilling, geophysical, and geological specialists than deploying the specialists to each rig. The enabling factor is reliable and secure communication systems."
The day rate for a modern, deepwater capable drilling rig today is about $150,000 a day, sometimes more. Communications, depending on complexity of systems, amount of broadband wanted, and number of phones needed, runs only a fraction of that. The number of phones on a rig or platform can go up to 280.
Prices for a typical rig or platform communications setup run from a few hundred dollars a day to several thousand. Ordinarily, the rig owner doesn't own the equipment, so he has no up-front costs. Under the old system, an owner switched service providers and changed out equipment every time a rig moved.
The trend now is to carry the same communications package from one site to the next. Providers may change, depending on where the rig goes or what services are needed. For example, fax links can be added or taken out, microwave connected, or cellular phones put into use. In certain areas of the world, commercial television can be brought on board.
Most providers seek multi-year contracts, but repair and maintenance of the equipment is taken care of, and the costs can be prorated among producer clients and service companies that use the system almost as much as the rig owner.
After conducting a market study in the Gulf of Mexico this year, RigNet's Haugan estimates total market spending of about $150 million a year for satellite services, communications equipment, support, and related services.
"The offshore rig has now become an integrated part of a company's home office," he says "Regardless of where it works, it can be reached by dialing a three or four-digit number. And from the rig, workers can make local calls to any city the owner incorporates in the communication system."
Employing innovations such as shared bandwidth and voice over IP, RigNet now offers a fixed day-rate covering service calls and other projected costs.
So how does a contractor, producer, or service company pick and choose? What's new and available out there now? Here's a sampling of the tricks of the trade.
IP – better known as Internet Protocol – has become the catchphrase of the day for satcom users. That simply means using the Internet for phone or fax connections, and that practice has rapidly caught on. Technical advantages do exist though, says Errol Olivier, president of CapRock Communications, Houston, a supplier of communications for oil and gas.
"Access to the Internet is indispensable to offshore work, the same as it is in your home or office," he explains. "Using voice or fax over the Internet, sometimes called VoIP, uses less bandwidth than traditional frame relay. It's a breakthrough addition to our services. VoIP changes voice into packets of data and sends that across satellite and Internet connections. It minimizes delays and echoes commonly experienced when making satellite phone calls by traditional frame relay. Voice quality is improved."
CapRock's IP-Xpress, a new voice and broadband offering, employs MPLS –multiple protocol label switching – to combine traditional frame relay and super-fast asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) networks with IP to create wireless access and virtual private networks (VPN) back to shore.
RigNet, network designer and provider of satellite services, was a pioneer in developing VoIP by satellite for offshore rigs. Two years ago, RigNet began working with Cisco, a manufacturer of communications gear, to introduce that service in the Gulf of Mexico. Now RigNet has 35 rigs up and running VoIP around the globe, more than any other provider out there today.
Rudimentary videoconferencing at sea has been around a long time but never caught on. RigNet has entered a pilot project to test new software and equipment to bring modern, full-motion conferencing to rigs and platforms. Tandberg, headquartered in New York and Oslo, designs, develops and markets systems that enable clients to set up conferences in remote places for audio, video or on the web. Options allow traditional videoconferences or include PC-based attendees in the meeting. Conferences can be interactive and live.
WebEx Communications Inc., another newcomer, provides a system to connect workers on a rig to shore bases, or to another rig for that matter, anywhere in the world, for real-time web conferences.
Sperry-Sun Drilling Service's Insite networks a rig to pull in and integrate well information for real-time analyses. Data is acquired from downhole and rig sensors, including MWD, directional drilling, wireline, drilling fluids, and pumping actions. Everything is analyzed and displayed. Stored data can be accessed by satellite, on the Internet, or by a direct link. Standalone services such as directional drilling, surface logging, formation evaluation while drilling, well planning and drilling engineering come together in one package.
Similar services come from Baker Hughes's RigLink and National Oilwell's Hawk, so named in part because of constant monitoring of drilling activity.
Hawk employs computer applications to combine WebDriller to collect data and monitor equipment and Drilling Advisor to suggest optimum ways to improve operations. Three critical actions are covered at the same time: monitoring equipment, managing data, and automatic control of operations. Online support is available at all times, through the Internet, from service centers in Stavanger and Houston. A third center is to open soon in Singapore.
Statoil, Baker Hughes, Schlumberger, Ensco, Transocean, and Diamond Offshore tested Hawk earlier. A one-time setup fee installs the system on a rig, and monthly fees cover upkeep and maintenance.
National Oilwell placed its first Drilling Advisor on Statoil's Statfjord B drilling platform in July 2002. Drilling Advisor and WebDriller will soon monitor the entire field. Statoil has now relocated mud loggers from the field to onshore, thus allowing monitoring and control to be done at lower expense in Stavanger.
In another application, Halliburton's Sperry-Sun and Landmark Graphics combined recently to design and implement a real-time operations center for Shell in New Orleans. Through the Internet, qualified experts anywhere in the world can access the data. Decisions on drilling or completion changes can be made on the spot. Data banks across the world become available immediately from the rig floor. Halliburton's Asset Management Center provides field support in real time. What becomes available is 3D graphic modeling, charts showing bit location and cutting rate, permeability and porosity logs taken while drilling, mud rates and density.
Even old systems benefit from modern communications. SCADA – supervisory control and data acquisition – has been popular in fields on land since the early 1960s. That trend spread years ago to near-offshore producers. Sensors in the field collect data and devices inside the well control production and perform maintenance. The difference today is the speed at which this happens.
Every new e-field contemplated today incorporates some or all of these elements.
Exactly what is an e-field? "Whether we call new producing blocks digital wells or electronic fields doesn't matter," says CapRock's Errol Olivier. "The two terms mean the same. To me, an e-field links all wells in real time to monitor and control oil and gas production. At sea, and for most remote sites, that means satellite communications in one form or another. How soon that will become commonplace and dominate the industry is anyone's guess."
Expanding its market base, CapRock agreed last month to operate Halliburton's satellite network at 200 global locations and market those services. On its own, CapRock plans to further extend services around the world. It already has a teleport in Friendswood, 20 mi southeast of Houston, controlling activity in distant places. Soon it will convert a facility in Aberdeen to handle traffic for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Before long, a new site on Beltway 8 in south Houston will replace Friendswood and manage service expansion in North and South America. The seven-acre block will house a 40,000-sq- ft building for complete communication services. Within another year or so, CapRock plans to erect a teleport in Singapore or Hawaii to bring Asia and Australia into the loop.
"We're seeing an increase in demand from operators and service contractors for communications that will support e-field applications," says RigNet's Eliassen. "Easy integration using industry-standard IP and service quality are now required on many global projects."
How do these systems fit together?
"We now have all the tools," says Giles Roberts, network operations manager for CapRock's teleport outside Houston, "to extend satellite communications completely around the globe, 24x7, regardless of how distant the site, no matter how remote."
From this base, housing network workstations, stacks of routers, and rows of electronic switches, he and his crew manage communication sites for oil and gas producers in the North Sea, drillers in West Africa, service companies in the Gulf of Mexico. At the touch of a button, he can shut down a fax in the North Sea 80 mi from Aberdeen, divert a data collection point from one site in the Persian Gulf to another, or restore a phone connection on a rig 120 mi out of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico's deepwater.
But the real question to ask of an ever-changing industry like satcom is this: What's next, guys?
Who supplies satellite services?
In addition to solution providers such as RigNet, Sola, and CapRock and specialists like Visean and Tandberg, users of satcom are served by satellite providers. Many exist, and some concentrate on serving oil and gas. In the Gulf of Mexico, which utilizes a good portion of the industry's communications needs, six companies share nearly all the business. They are Schlumberger, RigNet, Petrocom, Sola Communications, CapRock Services Corp., and Stratos, a Canadian-owned company that has acquired a big position in the United States. Some provide cellular, microwave, or high-frequency radio, in addition to satellite reception. Suppliers such as AT&T of the United States, BT Communications of London, and Telenor in Oslo assist in meeting this need for satellite coverage in other areas. For the most part, they connect the rig or platform to satellites in the sky. They place stationary or fixed antennas on platforms attached to the seafloor but a moving rig or ship must have a stabilized antenna. There, the dish is mounted on gimbals to allow capture of signals while moving about. CapRock appears dominant in the Gulf of Mexico with Schlumberger probably first among global providers. Designers and packagers connect their systems to any service provider.