Consumer demand for energy is expected to rise 40 percent by 2030. More complex product processes, such as oil sands and deep water drilling, have become more attractive due to higher oil prices. As a result, oil and gas exploration companies are increasing frontier production in remote locations, which demand a reliable and robust network communications infrastructure. At the same time, oil and gas companies are seeing the benefits of implementing next-generation “Oil 2.0″ or “Smart Field” applications that go beyond simple connectivity to streamline operations, enable closer monitoring of assets, and deliver new cost benefits. By taking a holistic approach to implementing intelligent wireless broadband technology, oil fields that once seemed too expensive or too remote, can now become economically viable.

Cost of Disjointed Processes

Studies have shown that oil companies waste 25 percent of their investments as a result of uninformed decision making. Major information resources like process monitoring, surveillance, enterprise application systems, and related information have traditionally involved disjointed processes requiring significant human intervention to interpret information and make decisions. However, if companies have integrated operations, they can deliver a one to seven percent increase in hydrocarbon recovery and material cost efficiencies.

The oil and gas services industry have recognized these challenges and benefits and have begun pushing vendors to offer solutions that have the ability to aggregate information from several different sources on the field – such as SCADA, video, geo-data, voice over-ip, or remote access to Enterprise applications and data – in order to facilitate a more effective decision-making process. Information from various sources that were traditionally disjointed is now being packaged into Internet Protocol (IP) packets and transmitted over common infrastructure – either running as a private network or through the Internet, making them accessible anywhere in the world, anytime; thus extending the enterprise IT reach. This in turn, is driving bandwidth requirements in more remote areas as more information is driven through oil and gas enterprise networks.

Enhancing Application Benefits

Wireless broadband technology can help oil and gas companies handle growing bandwidth requirements and enable advanced network connectivity throughout the entirety of the operation – from the drilling area to the operations area, back office, and headquarters. Although there are a variety of different strategies for building a network infrastructure, a holistic approach is key to connecting the crew, monitoring, video surveillance, data, and other applications to improve, accelerate production, reduce nonproduction time, and improve overall operational efficiency and safety.

Examples of mission-critical applications that wireless broadband connectivity can enhance include:

1. Asset Surveillance and Monitoring: Miles of unprotected pipeline and expensive wellhead equipment pose attractive targets for vandals and saboteurs. Wireless solutions enable oil and gas companies to efficiently monitor their remote high-value assets, for both security and operational purposes. Rugged base stations enable easy and cost-effective deployment and relocation of cameras.
2. Collecting Environmental Data: Oil and gas companies need real-time access to seismic data, an important component for testing, drilling and supporting real-time decision making. To achieve this, employees need continuous access to a high-speed network for the transmission of data and asset communication. Wireless networking solutions enable the efficient transfer of the large amounts of environmental data from remote locations to headquarters for immediate analysis.
3. Headquarters Communications: Offshore oil rigs rely on wireless networking for communications with headquarters and ships. Companies that once opted for satellite-based communications solutions have found it to be problematic due to the high cost, high latency and low data rates. Wireless networking solutions enable offshore rigs to set up a private network that offers the features and reliability they need to support their productivity, and the essential communications needed for tankers.
4. Rig-to-Tanker, Rig-to-Shore and On Rig Communication: Use of a wireless network means that remote oil rigs can cost-effectively transmit critical information to and from inbound tankers and/or maintenance vessels. Wireless communications between rig and an incoming tanker can allow the tanker and rig to automatically sync their databases, so that inventory transfer can begin immediately without lengthy satellite phone calls.
5. Remote Office Communications: Communications can be challenging in some locations. Even when fiber or other methods of communications reach one office, they may not reach all locations in the field. Wireless solutions can address these needs and enable VoIP communications or remote training via video, which is extremely valuable, especially for off-shore rigs, as well as conferencing for technical problem resolution by remotely located experts

Architectural Considerations & Technical Requirements

Although every environment is different, there are some very important and basic technical requirements should be considered when evaluating and building a wireless broadband infrastructure. Oil and gas companies can realize the full benefits of Oil 2.0 applications if architected with the following considerations in mind:

1. Range: Oil fields are generally in remote locations where public cellular infrastructure is either unavailable or nonexistent. Sufficient network range is important, whether it is to connect onshore assets to offshore ones, or to connect a very remote oil rig to surrounding production assets.
2. Capacity/Bandwidth: Typically, there is a range versus bandwidth tradeoff, i.e. high range results in lower available bandwidth.
3. Uplink Data Flow: Public cellular networks tend to be consumer-centric, thus are optimized to offer download bandwidth (base station to remote radio) several times greater than upload bandwidth. In contrast, an oil field wireless network requires an upload-centric nature due to critical sensors, surveillance equipment and RFID devices, uploading information (be it video, voice or data) simultaneously.
4. Equipment & Network Reliability: Mean time before failure (MTBF) is a critical metric often used in wireless technologies due to the extremely high cost of communication downtime. Reliability requirements are amplified when wireless networks are used to connect and monitor critical oil and gas production processes. Due to harsh conditions and remote locations, device ruggedness is a general need for wireless broadband devices for oil and gas companies.
5. Service Differentiation: Connecting numerous devices, including consumer mobile, sensors, monitoring and control equipment, to a single and ubiquitous network requires another important requirement of a wireless network, service differentiation and quality-of-service assurance. This refers to creating a seamless connection that prioritizes one type of traffic over another to ensure appropriate service quality depending on the criticality of the application, for example, critical sensor warning transmission takes precedence over e-mail. Another aspect of service differentiation relates to the derived networking design and segmentation requirements – typically each service would require strict separation and its own networking domain and rules.
6. Network and Data Security: Equipment and user authentication and authorization, as well as protecting the security of the data transmitted are key for any dispersed enterprise infrastructure.
7. Environmental requirements: Adjusting the equipment to fit the harsh environments of the remote locations, as well as to the regulated hazard location domains are required for oil-and-gas networks.

Wireless broadband technologies are becoming increasingly critical to daily operations as the energy industry continues to explore more remote areas around the globe. By facilitating better communications between all locations and facilities – including headquarters, rigs, ships and other remote locations – oil and gas companies can better monitor, track and control assets from extraction to customer delivery. As a result, organizations can dramatically improve their bottom line and better prepare to meet global supply and demand for years to come.

Rita Tochner is Director of Strategic Marketing for Alvarion, a company that provides optimized wireless broadband solutions. Tochner brings over 18 years of experience in the telecommunication industry, bringing her knowledge of telecom and IP technology to new frontiers. She has been a major contributor to the successful transition of companies and businesses to IP, including helping organizations tackle the unique challenges and opportunities particular to the oil and gas and utilities industries.