Satellites put the zip into daily operations

Everyone knows what satellites do. Made of aluminum and titanium, durable plastic, tiny computer chips, and delicate electronic circuitry, they whirl about the earth high above the equator.

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Robert G. Burke
Special Correspondent

Everyone knows what satellites do. Made of aluminum and titanium, durable plastic, tiny computer chips, and delicate electronic circuitry, they whirl about the earth high above the equator. They send and receive ultrahigh-frequency signals, handle electronic data, observe, and photograph. They talk to one another or to distant earth stations, airplanes in the sky, and ships at sea.

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But what do they really do?

Communications is the most common form of services provided by satellite. Primarily that's delivery of voice, fax, data, and video. Energy companies are only one industry group to participate in what's often called "satcom." To some observers, the oil and gas portion of satcom traffic is already larger than the nearest competitor, which is shipping and general transportation. Most telecom providers regard oil and gas as a separate market due to oil's global spread of action.

The world market for satcom comes to many billions of dollars, so widespread that only educated guesses are possible. For energy alone, on a global basis, one estimate places the figure at almost $6 billion a year.

Part of that comes for retail purposes. Almost every gasoline station in the United States has a satellite dish on the roof to validate credit cards and monitor purchases. Soon, if not already, this trend will spread to Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

What's available?

Inmarsat and VSAT are primary suppliers of satcom services. Their differences are a matter of scale. Both can be obtained from numerous providers. VSAT mainly provides regional service. Inmarsat is global, but competitors now crowd the horizon. They can be either low-earth orbiters (LEOs) or geostationary (GEO) satellites that appear to stand still in the sky.

GEOs must travel 17,000 mph at an altitude of 22,300 miles to stay in the air. Elapsed time for a signal to go up and back at the speed of light is one-fourth of a second. Some find this delay annoying in a phone conversation or over TV. For data transfer, this is not a problem.

Inmarsat and VSAT also differ in costs. Clients of VSAT must foot the bill for equipment upfront and pay monthly fees. Rarely do they have time charges. Inmarsat has less upfront cost but bills by the minute.

Inmarsat, the first global satcom provider and still popular, is a big GEO operator. VSAT employs a spot beam to focus on a single area, mostly from GEO satellites.

LEOs fly only a few hundred miles above earth, so there's less delay. But LEOs must place 20 to 250 satellites in orbit to cover the world, and that brings up economic issues.

Iridium and Globalstar placed LEO constellations in the sky a few years ago to supply global communications. Soon after, both ran into financial problems and entered into bankruptcy.

Of ultrahigh frequencies available, C-band is most common. That's associated with VSAT more than anything, though Inmarsat dealers also provide L-band and Ku-band. Television goes out on C-band and Ku-band and so does microwave. The new Ka-band has not yet become commercial. Each has benefits - and drawbacks.

Out in the sky today are about 150 communications satellites with more than 100 in GEO orbit. Hundreds more provide navigational and weather data, meet safety or emergency needs, and perform military chores. Relays placed among them allow a few to blanket the earth, even though a ground observer sees a satellite for only a few minutes every hour.

Stunning recoveries

"Iridium is out of bankruptcy and in full swing," announces Brian Patrick, on the sales force of Trionics Inc., of Webster, a suburb of Houston. "Actually, the company never shut down. The government stepped in and funded the earth stations."

Iridium operates now under new leadership, and service is available now.

"Iridium seems solid and coming back," agrees Wayne Rentfro, a former executive at Comsat and now head of New Vector Communications Solutions LLC in Houston. "Most people are pleasantly surprised at that."

Globalstar confronted a similar situation. After a promising start in 2001, the company sank into financial ruin.

"Globalstar is expected to emerge from bankruptcy soon," says Rentfro. "Their (Federal Communications Commission) FCC licenses need to be transferred to a new entity created for that purpose. As for Iridium, it has satellites in place. But it needs phones in the field to make the service go. Iridium only has one manufacturer of phones, Motorola. So does Globalstar, for that matter, with Qualcom as manufacturer."

Market conditions

The National Ocean Industries Association in Washington represents virtually every sector of offshore oil and gas and related industries. Most NOIA members' businesses depend heavily on some form of satellite communications.

"In recent years, the link between satcom and E&P operations has become even more important as we expand our exploration of the deepwater frontier," says Thomas J. Michels, director of public affairs for NOIA.

"Satellites do everything from dynamically-position drilling and production vessels to allow rig-hands to communicate with loved ones. Satellites allow land-bound geoscientists to monitor real-time downhole data from their Palm Pilots, and they facilitate remote sensing, navigation, and safety-of-life communications."

The entire satcom arena is an important part of the technological transformation that is revolutionizing business in the Gulf of Mexico, says NOIA's Michels.

Gulf of Mexico

"PetroCom has installed more than 100 remote VSAT terminals," says Bradley Parro, chief operating officer of PetroCom Inc., of Lafayette and Houston, a big provider in the Gulf of Mexico. "Typical installations include 64 kilobits per second (kbps) to 128 kbps bandwidth used for both voice and data. The architecture of the network allows the full bandwidth to be used for data if there's no voice traffic. When a voice channel is opened, that takes priority, and the data path is curtailed until the voice channel is closed."

Most PetroCom customers integrate local area and wide area networks over satellite, allowing distant and remote offshore users to access company email and provide access to the Internet and company intranet.

"A significant side benefit of satellite communications is that offshore employees, who typically work offshore 3-4 weeks at a time, now have access to email and Internet," points out Parro. "Depending on the installation, they can also have access to video conferencing, television, remote training and education, and numerous other applications."

CapRock Services Corp. holds a large market share of satellite systems deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the past 18 months, four large contracts were renewed for an additional 36 months or more, says Errol Olivier, president of CapRock.

"We support over 500 circuits riding our satellite network out into the Gulf of Mexico," he says. "Our fleet of satellite systems includes more than 130 C-band and Ku-band terminals, of which 50 are stabilized antenna systems aboard moving vessels."

CapRock intends to roll out a new IP-based service after a buyout in April by private investors and company officers. The new system will allow "plug and play" access for both analog and digital devices, says Olivier. "They can add, move, and change services or roam throughout the network using laptops, Palm devices, (internet protocol) IP phones, or video."

"Overall, I see prices as stable, or slightly down," says New Vectors' Rentfro. "For example, you can obtain a complete 64 kbps Ku-band hardware package for $5,000 to $6,000 a month," says Rentfro. "That includes space segment and related equipment, down to a backhaul service to Lafayette or Houston. That makes it hard for C-band and L-band to compete."

Still, overall global costs are headed up.

"Say we have 700-800 construction barges, 500 geophysical, 1,000 drilling rigs, and 2,500 major platforms - around 4,800 in all - that could be candidates for wideband," calculates Rentfro. "Figure each spends an average of $10,000 to $12,000 a month."

Altogether, that comes to $691 million a year.

"We're getting out on construction projects now," says Rentfro. "Many construction spreads have more than one antenna. Some have two or three, so that calls for a bigger cash outlay. They must establish a base operation and maintain backup facilities. That costs money too, sometimes in a big way. So they may spend $40,000 to $50,000 a month."

Add transportation on top. That's a different market because they use satcom differently, but they're all on the same systems.

Rentfro counts around 20,000 to 25,000 vessels probably budgeting under $1,000 a month for communications and emergency circuits. Add in workboats and that's 4,000 to 5,000 more. They don't need much equipment so they don't spend a lot of money, he says. Counting equipment costs, monthly charges, and manpower, that's another $173 million or so.

Total yearly cost to oil and gas companies for connecting offshore sites to satellites comes to about $864 million.

Price reductions

Both Inmarsat and Iridium offer global service. Globalcomm, when it comes back, may do the same.

"Inmarsat has reduced prices, especially on the voice side," says Trionics's Patrick. "Voice comes in at 99 cents a minute from Iridium and Globalstar and from Inmarsat at $3 to $4. Those prices were above $10 last year. Six months ago, high-speed data was $10 to $15 a minute. Now that's $7 to $8, depending on volume of time purchased."

Inmarsat offers 64 kbps service. Under certain conditions, Inmarsat can rig a setup offering 128 kbps, good enough in most instances for slow-scan video. That's done by combining two 64 kbps channels into one. Of course, price doubles too.

"Inmarsat has opened a new service called MPDS," says Patrick. This places a 64 kbps channel open all the time at the site. Clients are billed only when the channel is used.

Charges for MPDS will be based on amount of kilobits sent, not by minutes on line, but a price has not yet been set, says Patrick. "Costs may balance out between the two pricing methods, depending on how they are used. But having a channel always turned on is a good morale booster."

Soon, Inmarsat plans to introduce 128 and 256 kbps connections. "So far, no clear-cut plan has emerged," says Patrick. "They say it's just around the corner, but wait and see. Probably a year away."

Iridium offers only 9.6 kbps, good enough for phones and faxes but too slow for data transfer. Iridium charges a monthly connection fee of $30 to $40. Meanwhile, Iridium plans to offer high-speed data transfer.

Global positioning

Outside of communications, the most popular satellite service for energy companies is the global positioning system (GPS). The US government funds the service, supplied by 24 satellites circling the earth every 12 hours. Earth stations collect signals and provide data at no cost. GPS was designed for the military, but thousands of civil and business users participate. The only cost is that of a ground receiver.

"Seismic vessels and all drilling rigs use GPS," says Patrick. "Marine construction barges are big users when they lay pipelines or design and place production platforms. The need for precise positioning is not needed. A few inches or feet either way won't matter. But when certain equipment is placed on the seafloor, they expect precise positions, and that's available today at a price."

Simple receivers for basic standard GPS cost under $200. Some of these can accept differential corrections, the most popular form of GPS used by oil and gas. Differential corrects signals from two receivers to provide accurate positioning and navigational data.

Buyers wanting to store data for later processing pay more, from $2,000 to $5,000 per unit. Better units, those capable of acting as differential receivers (two are required), cost from $5,000 to $40,000 each.

Military units for precise positioning cost much more and are difficult to buy.

Most oil and gas GPS users buy differential GPS and pay for a simple receiver and download time on Inmarsat or another provider. They broadcast coded signals on L-band frequencies. Clients are always in range of at least three GPS satellites. The number varies. More are launched all the time to replace old ones decaying in the sky.

Even simple low-cost single receivers can locate position to within 100 m, any place on earth. Differential units are accurate to within 1-10 m. Sub-meter accuracy for military purposes is within 1 mm or 1 cm.

What a buyer can't find or purchase are software and mechanisms to launch and track missiles or guide them.

Even hikers and campers carry GPS hand devices to monitor where they are. Cars now come equipped for GPS to allow road directions to be broadcast directly to the driver. Forest rangers, fish and wildlife guides, and surveyors love the stuff.

Additional services

Weather forecasting for 100 years was based on shore measurements, says Rentfro. Data was collected near populated centers. For those working in the oceans, that wasn't much help. Now forecasters collect data in the oceans including wind speed, water temperature, and cloud movements. Over the last 10 years, forecasts have improved.

"Right now, they have a good fix on storm tracking," says Rentfro. "They're improving all the time. Maybe they can't say what is to happen this afternoon, but they can predict big weather."

Many satellites observe weather, among them Tiros, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Defense Depart-ment units. Cospas and Starsat provide search and rescue services for downed planes and ships in distress. Imagery satellites are maintained by a government agency called National Reconnais-sance Office and private systems named Ikonos, Earthview, and Orbimage. Globalstar and Orbcomm will offer mobile phones and pagers from LEO systems. And coming in the future will be broadband for Internet and fast data transfer from Teledesic and Skybridge.

"More companies want video on the rig or platform," says Trionics' Patrick.

They use that for emergency situations when a part breaks down or a piece of sophisticated equipment won't work right. With on-site video, pictures can be sent to shore within hours or minutes, where an expert examines the malfunction and makes a quick diagnosis. Previously, repairs waited until a technician was located and boarded a helicopter to fly out.

For sicknesses and accidents, a physician can examine a patient, prescribe treatment, or order him evacuated by helicopter to a shore facility. Emergencies were handled before satcom by making the patient comfortable and sending him ashore by boat, a process that could take hours.

Opening up Ka-band

One new way to communicate is the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Advanced Communications Technology Satellite, put into space in September of 1993. ACTS consists of a large GEO satellite containing five uplink and five downlink beams. Each covers a patch of earth only 150 mi across. Most previous satellites had beams covering at least half of the continental United States. Some cover all the US and even the entire earth.

Many of the beams are steerable, meaning they can be switched in milliseconds to another place. One beam can provide an uplink or downlink to a number of cities, say Singapore, Houston and London. Short bursts of data can be collected from each city and stored on the satellite. When a downlink beam focuses on that city, data is sent to earth again.

Due to power restrictions, a satellite can always receive faster signals than it can send. Even so, power needed for a satellite is small enough that solar panels and batteries can provide it. Solar cells on the most powerful satellites generate only a few thousand watts. Many satellites need only 200 w. By contrast, most commercial satellites operate with a 6 gigahertz (ghz) uplink and 4 ghz downlink. By comparison, a typical AM radio stations operates at range of 1 megahertz (mhz). An FM radio station operates in the 100 mhz range. Channel 7 on television is about 175 mhz.

ACTS is a big step up, receiving from ground stations at frequencies near 30 ghz and sending down at 20 ghz.

As a demonstration model, ACTS is not equipped to work at full speed. But a commercial model could broadcast in the range of 1.8 gigabits per second (gbps), equal to 450 television stations or 250,000 phone calls or 100,000 high-speed data transfers using a 28 kbps baud modem.

Switchboard in the sky

To test ACTS, Boeing engineers in Seattle monitored the results of a computer simulation of a jet engine inlet, in effect creating a virtual wind tunnel. And the oil industry participated last year in a study to send seismic data from a moving ship in the Gulf of Mexico to a super computer at Lewis Research Center in California for processing and analysis, and then back again.

Both tests opened new doors. Moving large amounts of data at blazing-fast speed could prove important to everyone. ACTS speeds up prompt medical diagnosis and treatment anywhere. Medical data such as high-resolution X-rays and CAT scans can now be moved from almost any point on earth to another.

Only a limited number of stations can operate on any given frequency. Communications satellites began in the range of 4-6 ghz known as C-band and 11-14 ghz called Ku-band. Openings in these spectrums have rapidly filled up. Moving to the range of 30 and 20 ghz bands will nearly double the space available for satellite communications.

Higher frequencies also mean gains in antenna power. Designers can focus a beam's power to smaller areas. Quality of communications improves, and less power is needed.

Smaller spot beams also allow more precise control. Two small beams can now be aimed at separate locations. And if they don't overlap, both can send on the same frequency at the same time.

A single beam on ACTS can scan 40 locations, covering about 750,000 sq mi in 1,000th of a second. One operational satellite could employ six scanning beams to service the entire continental United States.

ACTS differs from previous satellites because of its switching power. Devices on board, along with smaller spot beams, allow pinpoint delivery of messages or data or TV to one destination, rather than broadcasting them across the entire country. Sometimes ACTS is called the "switchboard in the sky."

What happens next?

Communication satellites now take six months to two years to build. Hughes Electro-nics, Motorola, and Teledesic want to step up prod-uction and blanket the earth with LEOs.

But ACTS could make that step unnecessary.

In 1962, NASA launched the Telstar satellite for AT&T. From one part of its orbit, the satellite could "see" Europe and the US simultaneously. At another point, Telstar could reach both Japan and the US. For the first time, global communications was possible for a few minutes every hour. Two years later, the first GEO orbit was established when NASA put up Syncom 2. In 1964, the world watched the Olympics live from Tokyo. The Vietnam War came live into millions of homes around the world.

How soon Ka-band technology enters the commercial market is uncertain. Many ACTS components have never been built. Industry has to prepare for a rollout and develop second and third-generation equipment before commercial applications start. Manufacturers must develop transmitters, receivers, antennas, and forwarding and switching devices, as well as make major advances in electronics. Satellites need to be launched and tested, modems installed, and consumer equipment designed. Though the benefits seem certain, oil and gas companies can only sit back and wait.

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