Taming The Ether: The Task Of Linking Hibernia To civilization

Calling the Hibernia platform an offshore installation is like calling El Nino a slight disturbance in the weather. The equivalent of a 10-story building in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, it is the largest offshore rig of its kind. More than 200 nautical miles off the coast of Newfoundland — a two-hour helicopter flight — Hibernia could have been a model of isolation. Communication by cellular phones is not an option. There are no islands between the platform and shore that could relay other kinds of transmissions. Not even MSAT, which covers the coastal waters of North and Central America and the Caribbean, is accessible from Hibernia's remote location. Therefore, the only viable option for communication to and from Hibernia was a dedicated satellite link. Satcom signals are uplinked to geostationary satellites. The signals are then redirected back to Earth, providing instant communications to and from previously inaccessible locations.

Integrating the System j What Stratos Mobile Networks a multi-network operator with offices in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Hong Kong — offered Hibernia was adaptability. Stratos owns and manages land earth stations with access to the Inmarsat global satellite network. Among the challenges for Stratos was overcoming environmental barriers. This sector of the North Atlantic where Hibernia is located, known as "iceberg alley", is an extremely hostile place. And, according to Stratos Manager of Oil and Gas Projects, Howard Maclntyre, whose experience encompasses 20 years in the oil and gas industry, "This region is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the foggiest place on the planet." For Hibernia, owned by The Hibernia Management and Development Company (HMDC), comprised of Mobil Oil, Petro Canada, Chevron, Murphy Oil, CHHC and Norsk Hydro, Stratos achieved economies by building a C-band earth station at Stratos Center, that is dedicated to the North Atlantic offshore industry, and providing a complete turnkey telecommunications solution which includes the main satellite link, vessel and helicopter tracking, and coastal radio station services, along with complete communications system maintenance, 24- hour network monitoring and customer support from highly trained personnel — all of which are essential in keeping this large and communications- intensive facility running smoothly.

"Careful planning was key," said Joseph Arsenault, telecommunications engineer for Hibernia. "The team of planners Services From A-Z HMDC communications requirements were many, including: lots of bandwidth (512 Kbps at present); an infinitely flexible communications network that would make voice communications from the site-to-shore (and back) as easy as using an office phone, with multiple simultaneous uses; voice/fax; data; video conferencing; data analysis and materials management; 24-hour tracking of ships and aircraft; telemetry to onsite tankers; a telemedicine link; intracom and cable distribution service to more than 140 cabins; remote sensing for meteorology, security and emergency services.

The variety and scope of these services has had a strong impact on Hibernia's day-to-day and special event activities. For example, video conferencing has proven to be extremely valuable. "It's quite a production to transport people out to the site for a meeting," Mr. Arsenault said. "The helicopters can only carry eight to ten people at a time, and it's a two-hour flight. With video conferencing, on-shore participants meet at the land station, and communicate in real time with the platform." This aspect was especially evident at the news conference announcing first oil late last year. It would have taken days to transport all of the 200 reporters and industry representatives to the platform via helicopter.

Instead, the conference was staged from the HMDC headquarters at St. John's, and teleconferenced via the Stratos satellite link using Hibernia's teleconferencing facilities at the offshore location and at its St. John's office.

NewTel Communications supplied terrestrial communications- PBX with voice and fax to St. John's and direct-dial long distance access worldwide, LAN and WAN-both at the HMDC building and on the offshore installation. All of the phones are local extensions of the central phone number, much like a land-based Centrex system, and dozens of outgoing and incoming calls can be made simultaneously on the Hibernia platform via the C-Band satellite link. In addition to voice communications, real-time data flow is critical to Hibernia's offshore drilling and production operation. Materials management and production processes require monitoring and continuous updating.

Hibernia also required computer connectivity. Its computer network, including Internet access and e-mail, is connected to the HMDC headquarters in real-time via the Stratos satellite link. Preparing For The Worst The physical isolation of the platform presents implications beyond the intricacies of everyday communications. Stratos' marine vessel and helicopter tracking system identifies and continuously tracks the ships and aircraft that support the Hibernia offshore installation. The critical need for emergency communications was demonstrated not long after towout. A sensor in a storage tank alerted Hibernia offshore operations personnel of a potential gas leak. Normally, vent fans in the oil tanks exhaust gas-laden air when oil is moving into the tanks, but, in this case, the fans did not engage immediately. Hibernia offshore managers launched the emergency evacuation procedure, while simultaneously investigating the origin and seriousness of the detected gas. In very short order, Cougar Helicopters "downmanned" more than 90 people to the drill rig Bill Shoemaker, located about 30 miles from the Hibernia platform. The problem was corrected and the evacuated Hibernia crew members were returned to the platform. All of this activity took place in a brief eight hours.

Looking Into The Future Mr. Arsenault looks puzzled when queried about future needs for expanded services. "This network of communications services was comprehensively planned," he explained. "We may need more bandwidth as production increases, and that will be easy to do [Stratos can provide bandwidth up to dual Tl; Hibernia is currently using only l/6th of that capacity]. But I can't foresee needing additional services for years."

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