MARKET STRATEGY: A telecoms gold mine?

09 February 2015 |


How can carriers help the mining community streamline operations and drive revenues? Alex Hawkes takes a look at some of the companies that have made the step beyond being basic connectivity providers.

Unhappy mining truck

Mining operations offer clear potential for carriers to establish themselves as the focal point of a data-rich communications ecosystem, and deliver truly innovative value added solutions and services. 

The mining community’s rapid migration towards automation is not only increasing demand for more sophisticated connectivity, but also presenting a very real opportunity to deliver a range of value added services. 

Despite major technology advancements in both the mining and telecoms sectors, the connectivity component to mines, particularly those in remote regions, has evolved little in recent years. 

Where fibre is available, it is the first and obvious choice for delivering connectivity to sites. But with many mines located in remote regions of the world, satellite remains the most practical and affordable option

It is instead on top of the network layer where telecoms companies are really learning how to differentiate themselves, says Martin Denari, global director of oil, and mining vertical at Orange Business Services. Orange Business Services has developed a range of applications, solutions and products that it believes can drive efficiencies across mining operations. 

“It is a really interesting time in the market,” says Denari, “They are all striving to find the most efficient exploration and produce at the lowest possible cost.” 

Mining has fully realised the major benefits of having a real-time collaborative environment, which is ultimately helping to streamline operations and transform the decision making process. 

By harnessing cloud technology, Denari says Orange is able to help mining companies create a data-sharing ecosystem, in which members can upload, download and store data. Increasingly, IT and solutions providers are becoming a more integral part of that ecosystem, and Orange’s offering enables companies to configure different access levels and permissions in order for them to securely do so. 

Orange also offers mining companies a range of cloud-based solutions. Denari appears particularly pleased with the progress and development of its cloud-based asset tracking and monitoring solution. The system is a fine example of how Big Data and analytics are driving real change in the mining industry. 

It enables companies to collect real-time data from mining vehicles, which can be used to detect failures and emergencies. Of greater value still, such data can also then be analysed to indicate behaviour patterns and optimise maintenance schedules. 

“Mechanical failures are inevitable, but this enables companies to deploy preventive maintenance, not corrective maintenance,” says Denari. 

This can ultimately lead to major savings for mining organisations, and is the “complete example” of the potential of Big Data and analytics in the sector. “As a telecoms company, we can really bring over that experience in data and analytics,” Denari adds.

Digging deep across Africa 

Telecoms operators in Africa in particular have a big opportunity to be a value-added service provider to mining companies. 

The continent is so richly gifted with mineral resources that the World Bank recently noted that it expects only four or five countries in the region to not be involved in mineral exploitation of some kind by 2020. 

“This is a growing market for us as the companies with multiple mining sites in different countries across Africa prefer to deal with one communications supplier that can cover all their locations,” said Dan Zajicek, CEO of Gilat Satcom. 

Gilat Satcom provides a combination of mobile and satellite solutions to the mining community, and in some cases is also able to provide fibre to the mine

“Where fibre is available, then satellite comes is used for backup. But of course, many mines are in remote rural areas where it will simply take too long – and be far too expensive – to lay fibre so satellite is still the only option,” says Zajicek. 

A number of factors are driving demand for a higher quality of network services across Africa: “A recent phenomenon is that mining companies are spending more on crew entertainment which also increases capacity demand and needs a higher QoS,” says Zajicek. “Fleet management systems and the remote operation of CCTV systems are also driving demand.”

Gilat has been working closely alongside its network of mining partners and resellers across Africa to gain a deeper insight into their needs. “We listen carefully to feedback and develop innovative products to fill market gaps,” says Zajicek.

As a result, Gilat’s focus has increasingly turned to providing connectivity deep down into the mines themselves. Earlier last year it launched a new system which provides high-quality voice connectivity to workers in underground mines. 

Traditionally, communication with underground workers has been via temporary coax cables which are prone to damage and unsuitable for many locations. “Gilat Satcom’s SuricatePRO service provides coverage extension for standard satellite phones, extending telephony underground without loss of signal quality,” says Zajicek. 

The technology in fact originates from a similar system that Gilat offers to military forces around the world for communication in underground bunkers, which has been adapted to cope with the harsh conditions found at many mines.

“To enjoy the benefits of SuricatePRO, network managers at mines need only to install outdoor and indoor units connected via fibre (up to 6km). Immediately, Iridium satphone users in the room can access the Iridium constellation as if they had clear sky view,” adds Zajicek. 

The company has also developed further into the M2M space, working alongside global suppliers such as Iridium and Inmarsat.

“We are the only authorised Iridium distributor in Africa (sub-Sahara to north of South Africa). We also have the Suricate system that allows Iridium telephones to work underground,” says Zajicek.

Dan Zajicek quote 

Liquid gold

Liquid Telecom has also been exploring opportunities in Africa’s mining sector. The operator, which collected the 2014 Global Carrier Award for Best African operator, has the advantage of leveraging the region’s largest independent fibre network. 

Its 18,000km network stretches from the north of Uganda down to Cape Town, South Africa, taking in some of the region’s most mineral-rich countries en route. 

“The regulatory environment and framework for each country differs greatly so we don’t have one overall strategy for the mining sector in Africa, but we are working strategically within countries where it is a major industry,” says Scott Mumford, head of satellite services at Liquid Telecom.

The operator has specifically targeted business growth with mining operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, as well as South Africa, where a majority of the large mining organisations run their businesses from. 

Countries such as DRC present a high-risk, high-return opportunity for the mining community. The largest producer of cobalt globally, the country is also one of the highest producers of industrial diamonds and boasts some of the world’s highest-quality copper reserves. Mining companies, however, have to also work within the confines of political instability and a severe lack of infrastructure.

Liquid has worked closely alongside equipment manufacturers and suppliers to assist the mining community in overcoming some of these extreme challenges. “We provided a mesh network to an equipment manufacturer for four mines in the DRC that it was operating in. We then linked that network to a European tier-1 backbone, so they could do direct site-to-site communications to anywhere in the country,” says Mumford. “This was a bespoke satellite-based solution to help the manufacturer overcome some of the challenges posed by the mines.”

In Zambia, it provides connectivity to the likes of Anglo American Exploration, Africa’s biggest copper producer.

The Zambian economy is heavily reliant on the export of copper, and is estimated to be on course to produce 1.5 million tonnes annually by 2016. 

To tap into this market, Liquid launched a joint venture in 2011 with the Copperbelt Energy Corporation (CEC)

CEC is a Zambian electricity utility whose core business is the supply of power to the mining industry and transmission for national utilities – ZESCO of Zambia and SNEL in the DRC.

“We already had fibre across half of Zambia, and CEC had fibre in the other half, so we linked the two networks together,” says Mumford. 

As well as operating one of the most extensive fibre networks in the region, Mumford feels Liquid also has an advantage over its competitors due to the level of operational support it can offer mining organisations. With a workforce of approximately 900 spread out across the continent, Mumford says Liquid is able to leverage local knowledge in order to offer operational support. 

Telecoms is being increasingly taken in to consideration when new mines are launched in the region, adds Mumford.

“If it is a new mine and the company is going to be there for over ten years and it wants high-speed connectivity, then it will invest in fibre,” he says. “Liquid can dig or can use overhead fibre wherever customers can pay for it.”

Moving forward in 2015, Mumford sees major opportunities for the operator across the continent: “We see mining as a massive market across many countries in Africa, and Liquid plans on working with many mining companies and aiding them in their requirements, as well as helping the manufacturers support the push to smart mining.”