May 2009

The world has BGAN

Satellite communications network connects the globe

By R. Bergen

The terminals simply need an unobstructed line to the regional satellite to establish a connection.

Fifty years ago, a crackling broadcast of U.S. President Eisenhower wishing radio listeners “Peace on earth and goodwill toward men everywhere” beamed around the world. The message, transmitted via satellite, might have been as effectively related in a greeting card, but the choice of medium hailed a new era in communications. At the time, only Ike — the leader of the “free world” — had access to it.

Over the decades, that accessibility has trickled down to millions of users. With very little effort, messages flash to mobile devices through networks across the globe. However, those working beyond these webs, such as surveyors, prospectors and explorers, have not been spared the inconvenience and inherent expense required to receive and relay field data to laboratories and head offices.

Where in the world

Almost a half-century after Eisenhower’s first public transmission, a global communications network is now a reality. The broadband global area network (BGAN) was activated globally in February, 2009 by the satellite communications company Inmarsat. The constellation of three geostationary Inmarsat-4 satellites enables subscribers with a portable terminal to establish a satellite connection for their laptop computers, which can be used to send and receive data, emails, phone calls, photos and video, from nearly anywhere on the globe.

Until February, the communication service has been available for much of the planet; however, with the addition of the third satellite, it enabled the network to cover 95 per cent of the earth. Though the coverage does not extend entirely to the poles, it does serve the Canadian Arctic.

For the mining industry, the timing could not be better. Closing distances and cutting transportation costs can reduce the financial risk of exploration that is hard to bear, even in the best of times.

Phoenix soaring

The new technology has paid immediate dividends to Toronto-based Phoenix Geophysics. Its magnetotulleric survey division purchased some BGAN terminals and now subscribes to Inmarsat’s satellite service. Ron Goulard, a technology officer for Phoenix, said that the advantages offered are clear, including: the requirement of fewer people in the field, more efficient troubleshooting, faster transmission of data, and transportation time and costs savings.

“Before we had the quality assurance that the BGAN now affords us, we often wouldn’t be aware, for example, that a sensor had gone bad and was recording zero data or extraneous data,” explained Goulard. “Sometimes it would take two or three days before we could identify a defective sensor. In the meantime, we might already have travelled to several other sites during that time. That would have meant three or four days of lost data and a lot of unnecessary legwork. Now, we can identify when there is a problem right away.”

According to Goulard, not only are there fewer boots spending less time on the ground, the cost of filling them with valuable experts has become unnecessary. “Traditionally, when you begin a survey you choose sites based on data from a map,” he explained. “However, sometimes when you actually get on the ground, you find that you may have to move the site 200 metres because there is a lake or some obstruction on the site that did not show up on the map.”

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