Miners demand more than just bandwidth

by Staff Reporter | November 21st, 2012

 

Pierre Hayaert, head of strategy, Astrium Services

Pierre Hayaert, head of strategy, Astrium Services, offers his views on meeting the specialised communication, connectivity and networking requirements of the mining sector in Africa.

Mining company networks are often distributed across nations and continents with internet access often outside of the country of operations.  Factors such as redundancy and security are crucial for business continuity so it is not always about bandwidth.

Offering an overview of the mining market, Hayaert says, “The mining market consists of the three major activities – finding, producing and distributing. With the increased demand and prices over the last few years, there has been a rise in activity involving the identifying and selecting of new exploration sites.”

With rising prices spurring the spread of new development projects and with activities, for obvious reasons, focused in remote and inaccessible areas, the Satcom industry has witnessed an increase in demand across the mining sector.

According to 2011 figures from the Metal Economic Group, exploration budgets totalled US $12.1 billion in 2011. Top 40 mining companies have reportedly announced US $300 billion of capital programmes with over US $120 billion in 2011.  With metal prices remaining strong or rising throughout 2011, investment in new supply is increasingly focused on emerging markets.

Speaking specifically about the potential of mining in Africa, Hayaert says, “The African mining industry is on an upward trend, supported by the increasing price of metals. Africa produces over 60 types of metal and hosts 30% of world mineral reserves and major minerals including gold, base metals, coal, platinum and diamond. There are currently around 700 mining facilities and 650 ongoing projects.”

However there are specific constraints of mining in Africa, says Hayaert.

“Constraints include political stability and lack of integration across countries and regions. For instance in countries such as Guinea, the mining code is still ‘in revision’. Other constraints include poor transportation infrastructure and customs clearing challenges.”

It is important for service providers to implement a recreational service portfolio for internet access, telephony and VoD. Mining Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) targets have begun to take into account access of employees to social media sites, web browsing, video streaming and the facility to call home at affordable rates

With regard to developing terrestrial/fibre/GSM infrastructure, Hayaert says there are operational constraints in Africa.

“Expertise is less available and hard to retain. Power supply issues exist even in cities. Mines have to cater for their own power most of the time and the tax policy is not always clear, bringing in legislative hurdles.”

The mining lifecycle

Hayaert stresses that it is important to understand the mining lifecycle to serve the industry. Upstream activities typically range from exploration and appraisal to development, production and settlement. The exploration and appraisal stage typically lasts five to 10 years done on short period missions by five to 50 people who are sourced either in-house or as part of contracted teams of geologists. The development and settlement phase lasts one to three years with thousands to tens of thousands of people involved. This phase is typically done by an engineering, procurement and construction management contractor (EPCM). And lastly, the production phase typically lasts 10 to 30 years with hundreds to thousands of people working for a mining company.

There are five key topics while servicing a mining company, says Hayaert.

1.       Installation, operation and maintenance

One of key areas while servicing a mining industry, according to Hayaert, is the area of installation quality that focuses on planning, civil engineering, equipment installation and VSAT configuration.

“Consistent power supply is critical for maximum uptime so high quality installation and UPS is vital,” says Hayaert. He adds, “This key area includes training for IT personnel so that issues can be resolved without waiting for an engineer to travel ensuring consistent uptime. In addition, given the rugged nature of the operations, the platforms deployed need to be field proven with spare parts available on site to avoid waiting for delivery thus overcoming the twin challenges of logistics and customs across Africa. Lastly to ensure timely troubleshooting and effective maintenance, local or regional support should be readily available. “

2.       Optimisation

Hayaert highlights latency sensitive applications such as ERP and engineering software.

“Mining company networks are often distributed across nations and continents with internet access often outside of the country of operations.  Factors such as redundancy and security are crucial for business continuity so it is not always about bandwidth.”

Stressing the need to optimise, Hayaert says, “WAN optimisation includes factors such as acceleration, compression and local caching. In addition, to ensure quality of service, traffic shaping is required to optimise or guarantee performance, improve latency, and/or increase usable bandwidth for some kinds of packets by delaying other kinds of packets. The solutions provider needs to be proactive in suggesting the appropriate modular network architecture, be it mesh , star or a combination of the two.”

3.       IT security  

Hayaert concedes that a VPN solution, while ensuring premium security, is very expensive to deploy at each site and suggests that the way forward is to offer a cloud solution for security.

“Firewall VPN tunnels generate 30-40% overhead over satellite,” he says underscoring the prohibitive costs attached to providing security. “The cloud solution will offer a unified and centrally managed platform with content filtering, intrusion detection, external backup facilities and so on. This will increase security while reducing cost.

4.       Added value

Touching upon the often overlooked but significant factor of value added services while servicing the mining industry, Hayaert says, “Telecom often gets noticed only when there is a problem. Service providers can offer voice services thereby reducing GSM bills. In addition, vital services such as video conferencing and worker-related services have the added benefit of enhancing operations and efficiency while keeping worker morale high. “

5.       The human factor

In line with trends in other verticals including oil and gas and maritime, worker welfare is taking centre stage.

“It is important for service providers to implement a recreational service portfolio for internet access, telephony and VoD. Mining Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) targets have begun to take into account access of employees to social media sites, web browsing, video streaming and the facility to call home at affordable rates.”

 

Hayaert is optimistic about the future.

“Mining in Africa is growing. And given that there is a dearth of Telco infrastructure with no last mile solutions, there is ample room for Satcom solutions.”

He does add a caveat: “As the mining industry gets more sophisticated in their operations from production planning and logistics to business processes, solutions providers should be mindful that while it is absolutely important to provide mission critical communication solutions, the client is also looking for more than just bandwidth.”

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