Getting quality communications at an affordable price point from a remote well, pumping station, pipeline, or distant mine site is difficult. Sometimes it is practically impossible or so expensive that the costs outweigh the benefits.
Satellite Links in Canada’s High Arctic
Modern landline connections are wonderful in urban and suburban settings but fail to perform or are simply not available in rural and remote areas. Governments are investing into infrastructure to provide broadband to all citizens in all regions. But, providing suitable connections to under-served and un-served customers is just as challenging in the consumer world as it is in our industrial world. The industrial users have always enjoyed a direct benefit by connecting to consumer based networks from carriers. We get to ride on the same networks and it is the consumer demand that justifies the carrier’s funding of the initial network roll-outs. Even with these federal government initiatives gaining traction for consumers, they are not likely to provide signal coverage in many of the remote locations where mining, oil and gas operations take place. So, while this situation is improving slowly it is never going to be ubiquitous for industrial users. So, what is the answer? What can be done to solve this problem?
The classic order of operations for provisioning high speed connections to an industrial facility has not changed:
- optical fibre,
- copper wire,
- terrestrial wireless,
- Other – PLC, BPL, lasers, troposcatter skip, etc.
The most promising approach today to reach remote locations is satellite technology. The satellite industry is rapidly evolving with many new technological approaches, including:
- new high power satellites,
- new coverage models,
- smaller antennas,
- easier and faster installations,
- lower cost terminal equipment,
- higher data rates,
- lower cost per megabit,
and other innovations that are now add up to make satellite connectivity to be a viable alternative to classic landline and wireless connections.
A BGAN Terminal inside a PVC Housing at a Substation
So, while we are seeing some excellent innovative progress from satellite providers, it is still not the best solution for every scenario. But, it may be close following second best choice or perhaps the only viable solution for most cases. On the negative side, issues that impact satellite links such as excessive latency and service outage impacts caused by weather are still issues to consider. Some of the newer satellite solutions are now dramatically improved when it comes to performance in bad weather because they use lower frequencies that are somewhat immune to rain fade. Ice build up can still be a problem but there are fixes for that issue too. The smaller antenna sizes used today make them far less susceptible to high speed wind based mechanical misalignment too.
Several innovations worthy of note include: spot beams, BGAN, and the new higher power satellites supported with advanced modulation techniques.
A BGAN Terminal inside a Tracking Radome on a Work Truck
BGAN is an acronym for Broadband Global Area Network. It is a service that uses small terminals and normally flows lower data rates. There are three satellites located around the earth in a geosynchronous orbit that cover most places up to and down to +80° N and -80° S latitude. It uses spot beams that can be directed at specific locations to optimize connectivity. The antennas can be less than 30 cm in size and can be housed in ruggedized domes for vehicle installation. These links are easy to set up and operate.
Inmarsat Global Footprints for Indicative Coverage
C-Band VSAT is largely obsolete for remote data connection links purposes. While the band is still commonly used, it is just not practical or cost effective for many data use cases today. The reality is that these C-Band antennas are not small. They are rather large and expensive. All of the supporting infrastructure such as foundations and installation positions are complex too. While C-Band is mostly immune to the negative weather impacts, it is used in extreme remote areas in the high Arctic or with legacy networks. It is not a popular choice for data connectivity today.
Large 7.3 Metre C-Band Data Terminal
Ku-Band VSAT is the de facto go to solution for data delivery to remote sites. VSAT is a acronym for Very Small Aperture Terminal.
Two Ku-Band VSAT Installations on a Rooftop
Ku-Band is very popular and is seen everywhere. In most cases, the antenna sizes are smaller in size compared to C-Band ranging from sub 1 metre to 3.7 metres. The 1.2 metre and 1.8 metre antenna sizes are the typical sizes of antennas seen depending upon the location and the suitability of the satellite illumination footprint for the remote location. Ku-Band is affected by weather as it is operated above 10 GHz where rain fade and snow and ice fade have great impact causing service outages. A de-icing solution is often applied to maintain the communication link by melting snow and ice. Rain fades are not overly prolonged and tend to be less than 15 minutes of outage in many locations. In many places like the plains and the west coasts of North America, the rain characteristic is not overwhelming and can be overcome with proper engineering of the link with a suitable antenna size to maintain the requisite gain and performance even in the event of rain.
A Pole Mounted BGAN Terminal with a Wi-Fi Hotspot
Ka-Band links are not often two-way data links but can be in some scenarios. Ka-Band is used for direct broadcast television services that bring highly prized entertainment content to remote camps for the workers to enjoy during downtime. In order to entice the workers to go to these remote locations, employers need to provide the same services as are common in urban and suburban settings. Access to intranet and entertainment are critical elements for a happy workforce.
A Ku-Band VSAT Two-way Data Installation on a Rooftop
Regardless of the frequency band that you work with at your remote location, satellite can provide the requisite connectivity to meet your project needs. It is far more cost effective today than in the past and the performance is better too. Some of the solutions can be easily installed. If security is mandatory than all of the technologies can be encrypted and firewalls and VPNs applied as necessary.
Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM Canada’s Network Services group. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and earlier was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation. He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.