A Bubblin’ Crude: How VoIP Changed the Oil Business

Conventional communications just don’t work very well in harsh environments like remote deep-water oil rigs or on board a giant oil tanker, where the environment is harsh and the options are limited. The climate surrounding an Ultra Deep Water (UDW) rig can be brutal, and easy availability of communication means that a critical lifeline can be in place – both to manage the operational side of the business, and to allow the crew to stay in constant touch with loved ones back on dry land.

There’s no disputing that it’s hard work in a very dangerous environment, and one of the biggest factors in staff retention is the ability to stay in touch. Fortunately, these challenges can be more readily addressed today than ever before.

Technology has until recently, played only a minor role in the oil and gas business. Success was built on geological surveys to find it, and logistics to ship, refine, and sell it. Working on a remote oil rig was (and still is) a dirty though well-paying job, but it can be isolating – a factor that not only impacts the psychological makeup of the workers, but also severely impacts the operational side of the business. From a purely operational perspective, reliable communications just means that you have a better-running rig, with easier access to information and data, and a more reliable disaster plan. But aside from that, regular and reliable communications on the UDW rig also means a better-connected staff, who will feel less isolated, and employee churn will be more favorable to the operator. Let’s face it, it’s a lot easier to stay on an oil rig in the middle of the Atlantic if you can make a phone call back home whenever you want, or even see pictures from  your kids’ softball game posted on Facebook.

A “borderless VoIP” solution, based on open SIP standards, dramatically changes the quality of life. Because phone calls can be sent over the Internet via a satellite connection, those workers on the remote rig no longer have to be isolated. They can make and receive phone calls from home, without a burdensome cost or troublesome and unreliable connections. They can use the Internet. They can post to Facebook and other social outlets to keep friends and family back home up to date.

That isolation is no longer the rule in the industry. Here’s just one example: Geolink Satellite Services just this month deployed a global VSAT maritime solution on an oil rig in the Gulf of Guinea, bringing Internet access and VoIP – to keep the crew connected to their loved ones, and to improve business communication and operations. The Geolink NOC is available 24×7, and “Sorry honey, the connection’s no good” is no longer an excuse. The customized Quality of Service (QoS) architecture makes sure that from a quality perspective, it’s just as good as making a call from down the block. Geolink also brought in a monitoring tool, Geolink Board, which continuously assesses performance and quality of service in real time on the rig.

Naturally, systems deployed at these remote locations have to be hardened, and satellite companies have stepped up to the plate to make sure that the physical infrastructure behind the VoIP systems can withstand the harsh conditions. C-COM Satellite Systems for example, has been focusing more on building robust products designed to endure harsh conditions just like that found on a remote oil rig. C-COM recently displayed their Next Gen iFLY-75 NetVu Flyaway Antenna, which can provide immediate access to satellite communications in any environment that needs remote connectivity in a rugged environment. Besides the oil and gas industry, it has applications in disaster management, emergency communications backup, and cellular backhaul.

Ultra Deep Water (UDW) is a particularly risky venture, with a high requirement for efficiency in operations and a high level of communications. With over 135 UDW rigs currently being operated in the Atlantic Ocean, there is an obvious need for real-time process automation, and a critical need for broadband networks and communications – but of course, hooking up an oil rig in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to the Internet isn’t as easy just as placing a phone call to Comcast. Satellite communication in these UDW sites is a growing trend and is rapidly changing the operational side of the oil and gas industry, and represents a major coup for the satellite industry.

According to a recent report offered by Research and Markets, the challenging environment of these offshore sites is a major driver of the global satellite communications marketplace. The rugged environment of the rigs leave very few alternatives, whether it is a deep-water location or a remote desert site with drastic temperatures. The offshore sites in particular are some of the most challenging places on earth to deploy broadband, particularly with high winds, severe rain and often dangerous waves.

Broadband, satellite linkups and VoIP in the oil industry go beyond the fixed oil rig however, with oil tankers also having a great need for communications, especially in this renewed day and age of piracy on the high seas. Satellite broadband and easier communication onboard ship give the tankers much more flexibility and power – but it also gives pirates the same capability.

The largest oil tankers, nearly a quarter-mile long, have a major blind spot. This “sector blank” is an area where the ship’s radar is unable to detect other vessels, and smaller pirate boats can use this weakness to get close to a tanker without notice.

These tankers are now using Automatic Identification System (AIS), an ancillary communications system that also uses satellite technology, to transmit and receive information about ships in the area – although this technology does come with its own limitations and it can be hacked, so that ships can disguise themselves. In one recent example, an Iranian oil tanker that had been blackballed in Singapore simply electronically falsified its AIS identity and easily sailed into port.

About the author  ⁄ Dan

A veteran of the dotcom boom, Dan has worked with leading tech companies and startups, and is the author of several books and articles. Dan has been contributing to WhichVoIP.com for several years.

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