Staying connected

A SATELLITE phone and internet option has emerged that can allow remote workers to stay connected. By Brooke Showers
Staying connected Staying connected Staying connected Staying connected Staying connected

Gone are the days when workers seeking some mindless gaming activity during breaks would open a quick game of solitaire while trying to avoid being caught out by the boss.

With developments in satellite coverage and electronic portable devices, "escape" options from the work desk have become endless.

Even better, these days they can be used while away from the desk too.

Smart devices such as iPads, iPhones, iPods and Blackberrys all allow users to read online news, listen to music, play Angry Birds and access Twitter during down time.

As the ever-growing mining workforce gets more remote and exploration field assistants and geologists work away from home in regional corners of the country, it becomes harder to communicate, both professionally and personally.

Mobile satellite communication specialist Inmarsat has found a way to bring this smart phone connectivity to operations where normal phone coverage does not exist.

Hence the Broadband Global Area Network Explorer, referred to as the BGAN Explorer - although no doubt some wag on site will ad an "o" to give it a slightly different moniker.

The BGAN is a small, highly compact, lightweight satellite terminal that provides voice and broadband data simultaneously.

The smallest BGAN model, the Explorer 300, weighs 1.4 kilograms and measures 217 millimetres by 168mm. It is capable of downloading 300 kilobytes per second.

There also is the Explorer 500, which has a high bandwidth, and the slightly larger again model, the Explorer 700, which weighs 3.2kg and can host multiple users via Bluetooth connections.

The BGAN Explorers are most commonly used in the exploration stages of mining for connecting field workers in remote locations.

In the production stage it is an ideal back up solution for staying connected in emergency situations or after unexpected disconnection issues.

Workers can plug a laptop into the BGAN terminal, point it towards the satellite, then receive an internet signal to either transfer data or access web sites.

Mobile phones can be connected too, allowing calls to be made from the wilderness through enhanced satellite connectivity.

Inmarsat market development manager - land business Simon Curran said Inmarsat's BGAN terminals were best utilised during exploration work.

He said teams often took two BGAN's to site - one for sending test data back to the office and the other for crew communications.

Workers in remote areas need to be able to stay connected socially too, whether it is on networking web sites such as Facebook or video calls via Skype with a family member in another part of the world.

Social dislocation is a growing issue in the modern day mining workforce.

"The mining industry needs to attract these young guys to come through, fresh talent, new brains," Curran said.

"So by providing them something like this, with controlled access, whether it's through separate user names or scratch cards, they get access to the value of say $30 worth of connectivity they can use.

"They can choose to blow it on You Tube in five minutes, send an email to their family, organise their flights, or read the newspaper in their own language."

Increased connectivity increases staff morale, Curran said and was an important differentiator when competing for staff.

He said such connectivity was becoming an attraction for the more experienced end of the workforce too, which had become increasingly tech-savvy.

From a commercial perspective at the exploration stage, the BGAN offers many data transfer opportunities. This means experts can remain in Perth and fewer people need to commute to remote locations.

"When they're using a plane for aviation geophysical surveying, they can take the disc right off the plane and put it in their laptop and transmit it to Perth in real time," Curran said.

"The expert in Perth can work on multiple projects, and the company has not flown him out, fed him and watered him away from home."

Most importantly, Curran said, the internet connection allowed data to be analysed in real time, which alleviated problems associated with discovering faults in the data or failed sensors which needed revising, after the plane had been returned.

"An estimate from a mining analyst is you can get a day's worth of geophysical data into a three megabyte file," he said.

"If you're paying $6 or $7 per megabyte, that's around $20 for a day's worth of data against giving the equipment back, rehiring the equipment and flying your expert back out to the field."

The BGAN has a high ingress protection rating incorporating a strong, robust design to handle environments that experience dust and high temperatures or even heavy snow and rain.

"These are used by the United States Special Forces and the Australian military use them in Afghanistan and Iraq," Curran said.

Many Australian mining companies have deployed the Inmarsat equipment to stay connected and are also utilising the ruggedised phone options for remote deployment.

Inmarsat's global hand-held satellite phone, the IsatPhone Pro, which has 20 kilobits per second of data availability, is designed to work in virtually any conditions.

IsatPhone Pro includes satellite telephony services, voice mail, text and email messaging and global positioning system location data. It has up to eight hours talk time and offers 100-hour battery life in stand by mode.

The satellite phone also supports Bluetooth, which means it can be placed on its side with full maneuverability of the antenna for hands-free use.

Increasing market demand for high data speeds in machine-to-machine solutions has led to the IsatData Pro being developed by Inmarsat and SkyWave Mobile Communications. That device is due out in the third quarter of this year.

IsatData Pro is a tracking, monitoring and messaging service able to deliver messages of up to 10,000 bytes to the device and 6400 bytes from the device.

Inmarsat's key distribution partner is AST Australia, which provides broadband and voice connectivity in addition to services designed to compliment Inmarsat's equipment and technology offerings.

"Australia is a key market for satellite communications, given its vast areas with little or no terrestrial coverage," AST Australia managing director Henrik Jacobsen said.

Clients are charged for BGAN usage per megabyte and the biggest problem some clients face is "bill-shock". For example, some laptops will automatically start to upgrade their operating systems when first turned on, which can used use up to 100MB.

Part of AST's offering is a high volume usage metering (HVUM) service, which monitors volume usage on SIM cards over a period of time.

If the volume exceeds a certain threshold, an alert is generated by email or text message.

HVUM can be set up to automatically suspend a SIM card when particular thresholds are reached.

Metering can measure the volumes over daily, weekly and monthly periods and counts megabytes of internet protocol traffic, minutes of streaming or dollar value usage.

All generations of the workforce are able to operate Inmarsat's ease-of-use rugged satellite phone technology to stay connected.

This article first appeared in the October 2011 edition of Australia's Mining Monthly magazine.

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