For oil and gas satcom users: How much bandwidth is enough?

July 1, 1999
Race on to provide bandwidth

From Houston, London, Moscow, Rio, Riyadh, New Orleans, Aberdeen, and all around the Caspian Sea, wherever oil and gas drilling and seismic are pursued offshore, users demand more broadband services.

Today's standard of 56-64 kbps (kilobits per second) isn't fast enough. They want 128, 256, and 512 kbps - all the way up to T-1 channel speeds of 1.54 mbps (megabits per second), which is substantially faster. They want more, if they can get it. And they want it now.

Why this need? To connect a home office with distant sites is a big reason. If a company has staff in Houston, Dallas, and London, they want availablility by phone to access e-mail, talk to managers, send faxes, accumulate drilling reports, exchange accounting sheets, and transfer data. Add Internet access and two-way videoconferencing, and the need for bandwidth mounts.

"Everyone is moving into the information age," says Wayne Rentfro, manager of energy industry sales for Comsat Mobile Communications, a division of Comsat Corp. "The amount of data has increased dramatically. Our corporate users want network-node type configurations with 24-hour connectivity and capacity for more data transfer."

This has led to new services from providers. BT North America, a division of British Telecom, now offers a program providing on-call data rates up to 256 kbps. This service is available through a network of global service providers. A client can reserve capacity and have a guaranteed channel available anywhere in the world. That capacity can be allocated among several vessels or locations and switched back and forth.

"Technology has given us better tools to manage large far-flung operations," says Comsat's Rentfro.

"At the end of the day, energy users will see better service at less cost.

For data users, cost per bit of delivered information will continue to fall. Because of growing competition and innovative technology, voice service is going to become quite inexpensive."

CapRock's VSAT network will create a virtual LAN extension from a land-based mainfrane server to offshore ships and drilling rigs. The system provides onboard satellite systems including installation, hub services, bandwidth, terrestrial backhaul, and system maintenance. With the stabilized VSAT, drilling information can be sent in real time from the ship to headquarters.
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Growing competition

Up to a few years ago, frequencies assigned to global mobile users - ships at sea, for example - didn't carry much data. They were primarily voice. For years, oil and gas piggybacked on these frequencies. Inmarsat, an intergovernmental agency now turning itself into a private corporation, was the primary provider.

Comsat, at one time, had a significant share of that market. Now five companies share much of the energy Inmarsat business: Comsat, British Telecom, Telenor of Norway, Station 12 in Holland, and Australia's Telstra. Each can reach as much as 15-18% of the market. The rest is supplied by Stratos Global, NDD of Japan and France Telecom, which could total about 9-11%, and a few others.

Many companies lease private corporate networks through MCI WorldCom or AT&T. They can also set up their own using VSAT (very small aperture terminals.) These are regional satellites whose "footprint" covers a defined area. Most domestic satellites focus on populated areas but usually cover the coastal shelf and surrounding waters. Over the last year or so, this has been a fast-growing segment of the market.

To meet changing demands, integrated service providers now design corporate communication systems using public phones, cellular, private satellite systems, microwave, two-way radio, fiber-optic cable, Inmarsat, and VSAT.

As an example of market size, Exxon, before the proposed Mobil merger, had about 100,000 employees. Of that, probably no more than 400-500 used Inmarsat services. Adding cellular phones for corporate uses pushed that number into the low thousands. But each one, or nine out of 10, has access, at one time or another, to a corporate communications network or LAN/WAN. Lan stands for local area network, usually confined to one building, and WAN means wide area net, often connecting distant locations.

Changing conditions

In a way, the history of the Gulf of Mexico reflects the growth of oil and gas marine communications. Microwave was the instrument of choice in the 50s and 60s. By the 70s, cellular took over. Now VSAT has become popular because companies expect super-fast data transfer, immediate 24-hour connections, and multiple phone extensions from the office, not just in the Gulf of Mexico but everywhere.

VSAT networks create a virtual LAN system, allowing office workers to dial a four-digit extension to talk to a rig or platform, essentially making a drillship or production platform a branch satellite office.

These services operate off Ku-band and C-band while Inmarsat uses L-band frequencies. Besides offering broadband service, VSAT differs mainly on price and access. Inmarsat charges by the minute or on demand and equipment costs $2,000-30,000 per unit. VSAT equipment costs more than that ($200,000 per installation and up) but offers constant access.

Many of the few hundred vessels in the industry's seismic fleet have already converted to VSAT services, according to sources.

"Broadband is what companies want now," says Kelvin Brown, an industry veteran and now Houston employee of ICO Global Communications Services. "That's accepted to be 128 kbps or above. Bi-directional video can run on 64, but the picture is fuzzy around the edges. Step up to 128, and the video improves. Go up to 256, and it gets even better."

ICO Global won't enter the satcom market until next year when it plans to offer global dual-phone and fax service across the globe. Dual phones operate as cellular or switch to satellite when clients get out of cellular range. ICO's digital service will commence at 9.6 kbps, and with time, will advance upward.

Teledesic another new provider entering the market, expects to offer 256 kbps from the start. This should prove a good test to determine if the market is willing to purchase broadband service - and how much customers are willing to pay.

Energy companies themselves have entered the fray. Schlumberger, an oil-service giant, joined with Cable & Wireless of London to form C&W Omnes, an integrated service provider. Halliburton, another energy behemoth, and Landmark Graphics talk about organizing a communications unit.

Status of technology

What allowed oil and gas users to adapt so quickly was a stabilized platform to carry an antenna and compensate for a ship or rig's motion at sea. Many drillships feature dynamic positioning that continuously change the vessel's heading to compensate for winds and currents, while remaining in position without anchors. With stabilized antennas, drilling data can be sent to shore in real time. Onboard antennas allow voice and data communications at all times, even as the ship changes heading.

"Today, it is not uncommon to see a drilling operation supported by four to six voice lines, a dedicated fax line, a 56-kbps data circuit for network connectivity, and an ISDN (integrated service digital network) interface for video conferencing," says Errol Olivier, a vice president of CapRock Communications Corp.

CapRock, an integrated communications provider, merged in August 1998 with IWL Communications. For 18 years, IWL supplied communications equipment and service to companies working in the Gulf of Mexico. Together, they offer voice and data links from the Gulf of Mexico to remote, hard-to-reach places around the globe.

Frame relay technology allows a provider to dynamically allocate bandwidth. When a phone call ends, that circuit bandwidth automatically becomes available to other services on the network. Technically, a conventional 64-kbps pipe can provide as many as 12 voice circuits. However, with new compression techniques, near toll-quality voice can be achieved at 9.6 kbps. Everything is programmed so it pulls what it needs off the network.

"Typically, we see 256-kbps service at many locations in the Gulf of Mexico," says Olivier. "They pull as much as 192 for LAN-WAN traffic. Some rigs work at 384 and 512, but that's unusual. For Internet access, they might have a small bi-directional dish allowing asymmetrical connectivity (one megabit one way and 64 kbps in another). One rig out there has 16 phone circuits, plus related services."

CapRock operates one 8-meter C-band hub in Houston, two 5.6-meter Ku-band hubs in Friendswood, and two Ku-band stations in Lafayette - one of 7.5 meters size and a second of 4.5 meters. These are spread out to provide backup in case of an emergency or natural disaster, Olivier says. From these points, CapRock provides service throughout the Gulf of Mexico and deep inside South America.

Inmarsat is used in the Gulf mainly as backup. Ordinarily, Inmarsat limits are 56-64 kbps. But if a need comes up, providers can assemble a faster data link using Inmarsat satellites. Dual high-speed Inmarsat "B" terminals can be multiplexed to provide ISDN type connectivity for voice, data, and video.

CapRock's new program called Satellite Telecommunications and Teleport Services (STATS 2000), extends service from drilling operations to producers, offering voice, fax and data with video components to offshore platforms reaching into deepwater. The program includes hardware, all space segments and backhaul services on land. Onshore, the system will tie into a corporate network so a rig or production facility becomes just another extension of the corporate network.

"You have to remember, the cost of satellite bandwidth has dropped significantly, just in the last five years, making such services more feasible than ever before," Olivier states.

Services of the future

Future services are likely to come from constellations being formed now. Lockheed Martin Corporation expects to develop a $3.6 billion system, called Astrolink, to provide the first satellite-based, global, broadband service network from space. The firm plans to offer super-fast delivery over the Internet, intranets, and corporate data networks. Partners include TRW and Telecom Italia. They anticipate launching the first satellite in 2002 and providing broadband data services to North America, Europe, and South America in 2003.

Three more satellites will be launched at six-month intervals to extend the network worldwide. These will cover 92% of the market, says Celso Azevado, former Senior Executive at DirecTV and now Chief Executive of Astrolink. Depending on demand, the partnership could place up to nine satellites in five orbits.

Market analysts expect the broadband market will be nearly $200 million a year by 2005. By then, industry experts say data transfer will dominate communications traffic worldwide.

Competitors include Spaceway, a global broadband satellite system that is being developed by Hughes Electronics Corp., which has invested $1.4 billion in the project in partnership with PanAmSat Corporation and DirecTV.

Also in the race to provide satcom services from space will be CyberStar, a network organized and being launched by Loral Space & Communications with France's Alcatel, a manufacturer of cables, as an equity investor.

What do firms already in the market think of these fast-paced newcomers? "First, we'll enter the handheld market," says ICO's Brown. "We're going to walk at a fast rate before running. We're aiming at everyone. If you walk and talk, we want you as a customer."

High-speed fiber net to connect Gulf of Mexico

The first stage of Petroleum Communication's broadband network into the Gulf of Mexico has started at a point south of Freeport, near Houston, on the Texas coast. A slim, marine fiber-optic cable was thrust inside a decommissioned pipeline and forced through by surges of water and a pipeline pig. Seven miles offshore, the cable ended in a splice box where additional armored marine cable soon will be pulled into place connecting to a platform at East Breaks.

At the network's opposite end in Louisiana, near Port Fouchon, south of New Orleans, a similar action will take place. When fiber-optic cables from these two boxes are extended and trenched in the seafloor, they will connect seven

platforms back to shore in an unusual, high-speed communications network operated by PetroCom, primarily for oil and gas companies, called FiberWeb. Fiber cable will extend into the cities of New Orleans and Houston, connecting them to the offshore platforms.

John Payne, President of PetroCom, says when completed this fiber net will allow high-volume, high-speed voice, data and fax traffic. Enhanced services to be offered include videoconferencing, high-speed Internet access and virtual private networks. "This allows high bandwidth for real-time data to be generated from seismic work, wireline operations and measurement while drilling (MWD) services," Payne says.

While improving safety and efficiency, PetroCom's fiber net should also improve quality of life aboard platforms. The system can provide local cable programming as well as learning programs on the Internet and through company offices or intranet services.

More than 20,000 people work offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and 3,700 platforms exist out there. PetroCom owns a cellular and satellite communications network started in 1986. That includes a satellite earth-station hub in New Orleans providing C-band and Ku-band services for fixed and stabilized antennas.

PetroCom intends to provide voice, data and fax, along with e-mail and related services out to these seven platforms off Texas and Louisiana. From these platform hubs, wireless communications can be extended by cellular phone or microwave to a wider area. PetroCom plans to add platforms to the fiber-optic net. The initial link covers approximately 750 miles in the Gulf but additions, spurs or rings in deepwater will in the future increase that to 1,100 miles, says Payne.

But providing 2.5 gigabits per second (gbps) broadband services to the offshore platforms may prove the most telling point of all for participating oil and gas operators. "Most companies have 2 gbps or greater on their onshore internal office LANs," says Payne. "This allows them to bring these offshore platforms into their LAN systems. Most platforms are really satellite facilities. They've been serviced in the past with rather primitive two-way radio or microwave communications. What we're doing is extending this 2.5 gbps communications service already in their offices out to these offshore facilities."