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Satellite Connectivity as enabler in the mining sector

Jul 15, 2016

The wealth of Africa remains in its natural mineral resources. It is these resources that have afforded African countries their competitive edge in the global economy. In 2011, Africa contributed 6.5% to the world’s mineral exports.

                                                                         

Price volatility, geopolitical turmoil, rising costs, declining grades of investment, restructuring, retrenchment and the decrease in the economy will make 2016 another challenging year for the global resources sector. It is for this reason that mines are looking at ways in which they can streamline operations, cut costs and measures that have an impact on human beings. 

According to recent research by Euroconsult, about 24 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region rely on relatively few mineral products to generate more than 75% of their export earnings. However, the region still remains underexplored without much downstream processing and value addition, as low industrialisation of the sector, including lack of physical and communication infrastructure, is constraining growth.

Because of their remoteness, mining companies often need to use VSAT services to connect their mines to the corporate network and for welfare applications. C-bands is preferred for VSATs, as the sites are often located in rain fade arears and need SLA levels above 99.5%. Networks of mining companies tend to go up to a few dozen sites. Data rates for mining sites tend to be lower than for the oil and gas sector but can still reach 1-2Mbps.

Satellites as an aid to mining activities

If we look at the role satellite can play in the mining industry, there are three key areas of focus. The first is that satellite technology helps mines to overcome the infrastructure challenges of various mining activities from exploration to extraction. Data connectivity and real-time communication enables mining companies to communicate effectively whilst reducing costs so that the focus is on increasing profits.

Secondly, satellite technology enables mines to function optimally. Many mines operate in remote locations, thus requiring a reliable and fast network to aid with the day to day running of their business, and to ensure communication channels are effective to act as an aid during medical emergencies. Due to the scattered nature of Africa’s mining operations, satellites offer a short lead-time, removing the need for costly land based infrastructure. Thanks to satellite communications, efficient and cost effective operations can be achieved. 

The third area of focus is welfare, the most important resource mining companies have is the human resource. Satellite technology can provide local support services to the communities they operate in which are usually in remote or rural areas. These services include e-Finance solutions which bring relief to the mine workers when they have to do their daily banking via their mobile phones; e-Health solutions which can provide effective healthcare not only to the mineworkers but also members of the local communities; and e-Education projects which change the teaching and learning processes in many of the poor communities. These solutions don’t even require too much physical space.

Lending a green hand

With the digitalisation of many industries being seen over the last decade, the mining industry is still relatively apprehensive. This, combined with the global call for organisations to be environmentally conscious, has created a niche market for satellite. Wireless and paperless communication is an emerging trend in the industry, its appeal covering both environmental and financial aspects of operations. While many may have fears that technology will make their jobs obsolete, mining companies have to bear in mind that satellite technology is collaborative with numerous benefits. 

Satellite as game changer in the mining industry 

Communication is an essential tool in mining as it is the only lifeline to the miners underground. Satellite helps to streamline coordination of information between international head offices and the mine sites which are in very remote arears, through broadband technology. Connectivity between mine site and head offices via face-time communication through video calling, Voice over Internet Protocol – which is ideal for long-distance phone calls - and faster internet connectivity not only decrease costs but also the occurrence of accidents that are a result of communication deficits. 

Euroconsult research suggests that most countries in SSA have seen a strong and continuous increase in mobile coverage in the last 10 years. Average geographical mobile coverage tends to range from 55 to 70% in the four sub-regions that we consider. Growth drivers include sustained competition between mobile operators and the push of governments for universal access, including through a mix of universal service obligations (USOs) and universal service funds (USFs).

The use of smartphones in Africa is expected to rise to 33% (67% feature phones) by the by the year 2018. Mines can use this to their advantage by harnessing the power of mobile. It is the best medium to disseminate information in a cost effective, easy-to-understand and interactive way in Africa.

Safer, healthier mines with Satellite

Unfortunately almost 300 miners lose their lives annually in mining accidents all over Africa. This was a key issue at the 2016 Mining Indaba and plans were proposed to ensure that this number is reduced and that the occurrences of accidents are also reduced. Satellite can offer services such as safety and environmental management systems, and pipeline security through live video-monitoring of critical sites.

Africa is faced with a myriad of diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Malaria and recently the spread of the Zika virus and mining companies need to have strategies in place to address these as they affect the miners and members of the community in which they operate. Once again, e-Health solutions can be deployed rapidly in a day or two to provide much needed aid to those affected. This is one of the many options satellite presents to mining companies to help them cope under extreme conditions and to keep their businesses operational.

Satellite a niche market for mining

Satellite works best in rural or remote areas because that is where we can show our strength and full reach of our coverage. It is flexible enough to cater to the individual needs of each mine and provide effective communications to the mines and the needs of the communities in which they operate. 

There are many factors that contribute to a successful mining business, but our most valuable contribution is connectivity. That connectivity gives decision makers the ability to make effective and timely decisions, even from their mobile phones.  

With the mining industry facing a tough year ahead, satellite has immerged as a refuge to the sector. Satellite connectivity has become essential to accessing information, providing better communication and improving the lives of miners, their families and the communities of Africa.  

 

By Ibrahima Guimba-Saidou, Senior Vice President, SES Commercial in Africa

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