[Satellite News 11-13-12] The prevailing business conversation at this year’s OilComm conference in Houston focused on a single statistic that the average bandwidth usage for an oilrig is around 2MB per second. The consensus among attendees is that most of this bandwidth demand is being driven by video, which allows companies to monitor operations in real-time. The use of video conferencing between rigs, platforms, vessels and onshore headquarters also is growing for oil companies and the rate of growth for personal use via smart phones and tablets has created a massive demand for bandwidth on top of the business uses.
In this OilComm 2012 review, Satellite News provides an in-depth look into two of the most critical issues for this year’s conference panelists and attendees.
Satellite, Hybrid Offerings Gain Strength
The OilComm exhibition hall functioned as a showroom for a wide variety of future oil and gas connectivity visions. Several satellite and telecom service providers, technology developers and value-added services took the opportunity to reach out to an even wider audience this year with the addition of a second OilComm track.
Speaking from her company’s booth, Harris CapRock Systems Engineer Susan Kawa said that the concept of the digital oilfield is the new reality for oil and gas companies. “This show definitely has a forward-thinking atmosphere,” said Kawa. “The IT professionals in this market are definitely more aware of their options, not only for today, but tomorrow.”
Harris CapRock recently announced plans to develop a strategic marketing alliance with satellite broadband provider O3b Networks, which will be focused on low-latency exploration and production communications capacities. Harris CapRock plans to add O3b Network’s new O3bEnergy offering to its portfolio for customers in the energy market.
O3bEnergy hopes to provide oil and gas companies with latencies under 150 milliseconds, unlimited bandwidth and speedy data transfers of up to 2 TBs per day.
“O3bEnergy will provide fiber-like connectivity to oil and gas platforms and search vessels,” said O3b CCO John Finney. “Oil and gas companies and systems integrators will be able to integrate the low latency satellite offering to get far more from their existing enterprise systems and operational budgets.”
Orange Business Solutions also made its presence known at the show, offering integration of satellite coverage, VSAT and terrestrial services so that on and offshore sites can be connected directly to a secure IP VPN.
“Orange is helping oil companies commit to expanding and investing in their future with broadband satellite, microwave and cellular networks, making remote sites no longer quite so remote,” Orange Business Services’ Duncan Seager said. “Companies operating in remote locations face unique challenges due to environment and climate, but have the same needs of less remote businesses, operating more efficiently, being agile and being more productive.”
RigNet provided lots of its booth space to display technology from its recently acquired subsidiary, Nessco, which designs engineers and deploys turnkey telecommunications integrated networks consisting of fiber optic, microwave and VSAT technology.
RigNet Vice President of Global Engineering and Operations, Morten Hagland Hansen, who will speak at the event’s closing panel on Thursday, said that innovation in the oil and gas industry has advanced rapidly in the past few years as technology development moves just as quickly.
"OilComm provides a platform to discuss the evolving requirements for satellite and network services in the future,” said Hansen. “It is a great opportunity to showcase the solutions RigNet provides customers in the field from drilling through production, both offshore and onshore, all around the globe."
Satellite operators SES, Intelsat, Telesat and Telenor were all on hand to put available satellite capacity – from Ku-band, C-band to Ka-band – on the shopping shelf. All operators that were present on the show floor reported excitement for the opportunities generated with oil and gas exposure.
Nessco Senior Manager of Satellite Networks Lawson McBay, a customer of SES, said that satellite is making the difference between oil and gas companies retaining and losing their most talented crews. “SES satellites and expertise play a major role in our ability to provide ship crews with seamless connectivity, as they traverse deep ocean waters from one satellite footprint to another,” said McBay. “Access to popular television programming lineups and fast Internet connections are absolutely critical to keeping rig and ship crews happy and in touch with friends, family and colleagues.”
Employees and Employers Driving Bandwidth Demand
While oil companies are expanding their bandwidth budgets to accommodate its new, tech-savvy generation of employees, IT and recruitment managers are also expanding their efforts to find the right balance of reliability, cost and security between their operational and personal-use networks.
OilComm’s opening session keynote speaker was Apache Vice President of Global IT Michael Kuykendall, who opened his speech by outlining a technology strategy that the oil and gas industry refers to as the “holy grail.”
“The network is our most important asset,” Kuykendall said. “We’re employing M2M resources to improve the way pieces of our network talk to each other. Our next step is consolidating our data centers. This is an effort that we are currently focused on in making our communications more efficient.”
The next step in Kuykendall’s plan aims directly at employees, which he refers to as “intellectual capital.” This next generation of workers, mostly in their twenties, are putting a unique kind of pressure on oil companies. “The oil industry is very active in hiring right now,” said Kuykendall, adding that Houston’s unemployment rate was less than 4 percent thanks to the booming domestic oil sector. “We are gravitating toward the youth and the new ideas that they bring to the table. We expect them to deliver those ideas, too, and we work as hard as we can to keep them on board. They don’t want to hear us say things like ‘when I was your age.’ They are aware of new technology and critical in forming strategies that ensure greater collaboration within the company and the industry itself.”
Providing bandwidth and access to communications to these essential employees is not only a business matter, but a personal one, as well. Kuykendall admitted that the quality-of-life employee issues associated with high-speed broadband snuck up on him. “I went out to one of our island facilities and was greeted by a hostile group of employees that had been working there three months at a time,” he said. “They knew I was the IT guy and they had a bone to pick with me. Then they told me the problem – they couldn’t play Xbox video games in their quarters. They were on this beautiful island, yet this was a real source of their happiness. I don’t take those matters lightly. We worked to solve that issue and show that we care about their needs because it is the little things like the Xbox that dictate work output and even retention.”
OilComm’s Energy Sector Roundtable panel session continued the discussion of crew welfare and entertainment as a means of employee recruitment and retention and the infrastructure that must be designed to make employees and managers happy.
This year’s roundtable was the first to feature a recruitment manager from a major energy firm. BP Recruitment Manager Dave Phillips has been the first point of contact with potential BP employees for years. He admits that the company his recruits will join is much different than the company he joined more than 30 years ago.
“The new employees that are entering our industry have a natural, almost instinctual sense of how new technology works,” Phillips told attendees. “Even though employment in the oil industry is rather healthy, we still have to focus on identifying a quality workforce. The difference is that the level of technical skill coming into the workforce makes it a very competitive environment.”
It might come as a surprise to some industry watchers that Phillips rarely gets asked questions from potential hires about what their connectivity options will be in remote environments. He believes that offering a robust connectivity platform for employee use is more a matter of retention than recruitment. “Having the ability to maintain the same connected ‘at home’ experience on the rig is going to cultivate a happy workforce,” said Phillips. “Being able to Skype and engage in social media, online banking and video conferencing is important to the younger workforce. There’s a correlation between the way connectivity is viewed for these employees and the way it is viewed for the military to maintain morale for troops on the field. A connection to home makes a huge difference for a soldier. I remember the days during the Gulf War where the most instant communication we had with home was a fax machine.”
But with the increased technical skill of the new workforce also comes new challenges. Shell Information Technology International Field Telecoms Advisor Don Happel noted that the modern video and data consumer is so used to having streaming video for entertainment that they don’t think about how much bandwidth their normal routines consume.
“Obviously, there has to be rules for employees with respect to bandwidth,” said Happel. “We have experienced problems with employees downloading movies and other video content illegally. They don’t think it’s illegal because they’ve gotten away with it at home. But, we’ve received those nasty piracy calls from television networks. So, we have to make sure we have the right firewalls up and the right network protections involved.”
One policy that adds to that challenge is the Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) rule that determines which personal devices employees can bring with them on the rig. Happel notes that, at the moment, the consumer-grade devices are often much more powerful than those available to the enterprise market. “In a perfect world, the employee could easily work and play from the same iPhone,” he said. “We’re constantly working to keep up with the iPhones and iPads of the world so that we can avoid problems and not be so restrictive.”
ExxonMobil Information Technology Telecommunications Project Coordinator Ken Githens said his company doesn’t have a BYOD policy, but has created a bandwidth allocation structure that gives his employees the accessibility they want while maintaining the security of the company’s networks.
“We essentially create two networks and separate the bandwidth,” said Githens. “Personal use sees its peak at night, so we can prioritize bandwidth for business operations during the day. Also, we’ve significantly upgraded the speed of the connectivity we offer for both uses. Myself and my fellow panelists all work for companies that could always use more bandwidth, whether it comes from satellite, cellular or terrestrial suppliers.”
Phillips added that the balancing factor in finding bandwidth is always cost. “We take the employee’s personal and work connectivity needs very seriously,” he said. “Robust connectivity creates a productive and safe environment for employees to work in and it makes them happy. They have to be happy when working around our equipment. After all, would you want an unhappy airline employee flying you across the country? I know I wouldn’t.”