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Digital Applications and Communications
Dynamics in the “Oil & Gas Patch”
by Martin Jarrold, Chief of International Program Development, GVF

As a supplier of essential services to the oil & gas industry, the satellite communications sector are acutely aware of the fact that cost-effective and efficient means of communication are essential to mission-critical operational success in the “oil & gas patch”. Satellite-based communications, together with satellite-terrestrial hybrid solutions, and terrestrial platforms, play a vital role in oil & gas. They provide essential connectivity and access to vital applications, often in remote geographic environments and challenging climatic conditions.

The search for new reserves of oil & gas necessitates migrating to harder-to-reach offshore locations (most recently in the Arctic Ocean latitudes). Additionally, older production fields are the target of innovative drilling and pumping techniques designed to extract the last drop of oil or cubic meter of gas, making the mission-criticality of ICTs (Information and Communication Technology) even more evident.

Thus, satellite will be an important, but not exclusive, part of the bigger picture at a new GVF event focused on the oil & gas exploration and production (E & P) environment. Previously, GVF, in partnership with UK-EMP, has organized two successful and widely acclaimed “Oil & Gas Communications: Middle East and North Africa” conferences, held in Cairo in 2006 and 2007. Now that same partnership is directing its attention to an event that will examine in much greater detail the nature of the applications that the oil & gas industry must exploit. This is necessary to keep these forms of energy flowing from the subterranean and subsea depths of the planet.

‘Oil & Gas Connectivity: Digital Applications and Communications Dynamics’ will be the premier event at which the complex interrelationship between applications imperatives and the communications infrastructures required to support and deliver them will be investigated. The conference will be held in Aberdeen, Scotland, over May 12th and 13th, 2008.

Attendees will be recipients of extended networking opportunities between key leaders of oil & gas companies, the vendors of cutting-edge applications, and the suppliers of state-of-the-art communications links. The conference will create opportunities for companies in the oil & gas vertical to call upon all ICT solutions providers; terrestrial wireline, wireless, and satellite, in the communications field, together with developers/vendors in the digital applications field. The providers can then match their offerings more closely to the specific demands and requirements of the oil & gas patch.

Enabling the Digital Oilfield

One of the key elements of the conference is the manner in which satellite, and non-satellite, communications solutions can help “enable the digital oilfield”, the key mantra of today’s energy extraction environment. The first step is to determine if there is a universal agreement of a shared definition regarding the term. The conference will go beyond what is implicit in the “enabling of the digital oilfield”—that is, the imperative requirement for systems resilience and data security—to analyze today’s communications product and service environment. These environments are where the players in the solutions vendor community compete to satisfy the efficiency and data risk-management needs of the buyers of Digital Oilfield ICT solutions in the E & P environment.

Networking Technologies and Topologies

In today’s oil & gas environment voice, data, and many higher bandwidth applications must flow freely between remote sites and other locations in companies’ networks to facilitate important and timely decision-making. The design of reliable, scalable, and cost-effective multi-application networks, together with leveraging the latest technologies, is now critical to the Quality of Service (QoS)-maximized delivery of solutions in the increasingly demanding environments cited above.

For many years, VSAT-based communications systems have been of pivotal importance in the servicing of narrow-bandwidth SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition)-type applications. Higher power, satellite-based systems are the key to the successful deployment of new broadband-based applications with a foundation in the IP environment. In this context, a major task of today’s satellite industry is to identify exactly how greater satellite bandwidth supply and cost-effectiveness can be realized in the form of improved bandwidth optimization and oil & gas sector-specific customization techniques.

However, as noted above, the emphasis in this conference is not only on satellite, but also on leading edge developments in terrestrial wireless and fiber communications technology. In addition to this, their current and potential impact on the ICT strategies in the business models of the oil & gas sector end-user, and in the communications solutions vendor offerings environment.

An analysis and understanding of current trends in terrestrial wireless and fiber is an essential foundation for oil & gas ICT managers in the planning of future-use and purchasing decisions in the broadband, IP, applications, and services marketplace. Essential is a clear and expert overview of how all of today’s communications technologies, and the associated business models which are facilitating their deployment, are most likely to yield end-users greater operational efficiencies. In this connection, the Aberdeen dialogue will examine how the use of different communications platforms are helped, hindered, and determined by geographically determined supply factors. There will also be an analysis of the potential for spectrum allocation conflicts between terrestrial wireless and satellite solutions in different parts of the global oil & gas patch. In addition, the program will explore the evidence for increasing levels of demand for fiber in the offshore production environment, examining whether or not there is a coherent business model to support the deployment of such infrastructure.

Evolving Commercial Applications to the Satellite Environment

It often seems that the developers of many business mission-critical applications, including those employed in the unique operating environments of the oil & gas industry (e.g., such as SAP, CITRIX, etc), work very much in a “fiber frame of reference” within the broadband world. Importantly for the oil & gas industry, the evolution in the operating parameters of such applications to render them more compatible with the high latency environment of VSAT would introduce an entirely new business model. This model would have the effect of radically offsetting any perceived potential advantages of, and create a barrier to entry for, an offshore fiber infrastructure.

The oil & gas industry end-user is essentially communications technology neutral. ICT solutions buyers in the sector are interested in the applications-supporting cost-effectiveness of the solutions they need, rather than the details of the constituent technology platforms that contribute the solution. Therefore they tend to be platform agnostic.

Yet, the physical circumstances of oil & gas resource exploitation, and the industry requirement to link multiple sites such as: inland and offshore; well-head and site office; Comparative Visualization Environment (CVE) and corporate HQ, necessitate companies in the sector buy wide area networking services. These services use various combinations of wireline, terrestrial wireless, and satellite platforms. It is incumbent on communications industry operators and service providers to ensure their offerings to the industry continue to provide a number of choices. These services include; multi-platform, multiple technology, hybrid solutions to meet the complex and extensive voice, highly data-centric (data gathering, real-time data monitoring, data analysis and manipulation), and video applications needs of this vertical environment.

Design Ergonomics and Robustness in the Convergent Digital Solution

The communications dynamics of the oil & gas sector extend considerably beyond the geology and seismology of locating and extracting raw energy sources from underground or beneath the sea. In fact, the dynamics include the various individual segments of the industry vertical as a whole. Within this, CVE allows for the simultaneous access and sharing of huge volumes of data between the multiple nodes of the oil & gas E & P environment. As a result, this involves close analysis of the practicalities of extending the bandwidth employed by the ‘turnkey solutions’ that are sometimes preferred by ICT mangers in the sector. This, as opposed to a true, multiple, end-to-end connectivity, is able to serve the entire range of industry applications demands at any one physical location as well as throughout and across an entire networked decision-making environment.

While cost-effective, reliable and scalable communications are one of the essential precursors of E & P efficiencies for the oil & gas sector, the fact that exploration and extraction does often take place where the natural environment creates significant physical challenges. Because of this, the consequential impact on communications equipment design and physical resilience must be taken into account. This has been true in, for example, the North Sea oil & gas fields, for which the city of Aberdeen has served as a major onshore center for many years. And this will be even more so in the near future. This is especially true in such emerging offshore environments as the Arctic Ocean, where personal radio, mobile telephony, Wi-Fi, and so on, hardware used at the well-head and throughout rig and field locations must be built to take the roughest of rides. Naturally, this also applies to the design and operational resilience of VSAT equipment.

Oil and Gas Communications for Oil and Gas Continuity
Finally, the conference will explore the real-world realities in the oil & gas environment of maintaining and restoring essential communications pathways during, and immediately after, connectivity interruptions such as natural disasters (such as major storms at sea), and human conflict situations (acts of terrorism). The effectiveness of different communications platforms in making useful provisions for business continuity/disaster recovery/emergency management, particularly the unique contribution of satellite communications in such circumstances, will be of primary consideration in Aberdeen.

For more information, please follow the link from the ‘Oil & Gas Connectivity’ banner on the GVF homepage at: www.gvf.org.

Martin Jarrold joined the GVF in June lf 2001 and was appointed to the position of Chief of International Programme Development. Prior to joining the GVF, Mr. Jarrold was Commissioning Editor and Head of Research for Space Business International magazine.