Africa’s mining industry often operates in underdeveloped and remote areas. Standard telecommunications networks are most of the time unavailable or, when they exist, unreliable. Most operators have no other choice than to implement a satellite based solution to overcome local network hurdles. Selecting the appropriate solution is nevertheless a complex thing to do, as there are multiple offers on the market, ranging from mobile to fixed, and from shared low cost to dedicated high end, solutions. Several questions need to be considered prior to choosing a solution, such as: do I need a short term or long term solution? Do I need mobility? Which applications do I need to run? How sensitive are they to latency? How much bandwidth do I need to run several applications concurrently without degrading the service? Do I need carrier grade quality voice? Will I run video-conferencing type applications? What level of redundancy do I need? How much will downtime cost me? How easily up-gradable does my system need to be? How much will it cost to upgrade?

TARKWA

Tarkwa IT Office.

The answers to these questions often lead mining industry corporate IT managers to deploy dedicated C-Band VSAT based solutions for medium to long term requirements during the mine construction and production phases; especially if their company is operating in environments affected by heavy rains or sandstorms. Customers looking for a dedicated, always-on and reliable turnkey solution integrating Voice, Data, Internet and Multimedia services will choose a high speed dedicated DVB/SCPC (Digital Video Broadcasting/Single Carrier per Channel) or SCPC/SCPC VSAT solution. The network architecture for each of these solutions will depend on each customer’s requirements and budget.

For exploration teams’ short term or mobile requirements, mobile satellite solutions such as the Inmarsat BGAN which combines telephony with shared and dedicated data services in a single compact device, or new generation Thuraya satellite hand held phones for voice and GPRS services, are often preferred.

COMMUNICATION

Communication system
in Eritrea.

Due to the lack of alternative infrastructures, satellite bandwidth in Africa is in high demand and has become a scarce resource. Satellite based solutions are therefore more expensive to implement, and operating costs are higher then for traditional first world ADSL and fibre based networks. Part of the challenge that mining companies face when operating in Africa is therefore to control their communications costs. To achieve this, the available bandwidth must be carefully monitored, and corporate policies implemented to ensure that none of this costly resource is wasted. The addition of bandwidth management tools allow IT managers to prioritise critical applications such as voice or time-based applications over email or web-browsing, control or prevent access to unprofessional websites during work hours, manage quality of service, and monitor the available bandwidth in real time. A tight control over the bandwidth usage will allow network managers to make informed, planned and timely upgrade decisions.

Telephone costs can also be easily controlled through the implementation of Voice over IP solutions. VoIP, in conjunction with first world traditional voice networks now provide carrier-grade voice communications with virtually unnoticeable latency over dedicated satellite systems, free On Net calls and very competitive international Off Net call rates.

Controlling costs is also a longer term operation. The choice of a satellite solution should not be based on the hardware and bandwidth cost factors only, but rather on the exploration or mining company’s long term objectives. Ku Band and Shared solutions appear to be cheaper, but Tarkwa IT Office. will not support long term operations in Africa. Ku Band systems are affected by weather conditions, and exploration or mining companies choosing this type of solution must be prepared to cope with downtime due to heavy rains, cloudy skies or sand storms.

Shared services’ contention ratios increase as the number of users on the provider’s network grows, therefore degrading the service during business hours (in some cases connection speeds can be lower then a dial up connection). Customers have got absolutely no control over contention, and never know which quality of service to expect from one minute to the other. Time-based and latency sensitive applications, ERP systems, and Voice over IP performances will be greatly affected by a shared service.

Mining companies that decide to implement a Ku Band or shared service, therefore often need to migrate to a C-Band, dedicated solution as soon as the number of users on the exploration site or mine increases, or when latency sensitive applications are introduced. This usually requires changing the hardware, resulting in unforeseen additional capital investment.

A professional installation will also help control running and maintenance costs. Communications systems’ downtime can rapidly add up to tens of thousand of dollars. Travelling to a remote location in Africa is not always easy, and replacing a failed component may take several days or sometimes weeks. Robust and reliable components, built to withstand the harsh conditions experienced on exploration and mining sites in Africa, are therefore necessary to prevent failures and guarantee long term operations. Adequate power surge and lightning protection will ensure that the communications system is protected at all times. Redundant and remotely configurable critical components will allow remote maintenance and repair in case of failure.

Spidersat Communications is a system integrator providing turnkey communications to organisations working throughout the African continent and linking companies to their western based offices. It is part of a group that has been operating in the sub-Saharan region of Africa for the last ten years. It is headquartered in Australia and has Regional Offices in South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana and Burkina Faso. Spidersat currently operates over 80 VSAT systems for the mining industry in 20 African countries.

To provide turnkey solutions, Spidersat merges VSATs with carrier grade telephony, wireless and mobile systems, thus offering clients fully integrated solutions to their business needs.