Undersea fiber solves cost, reliability issues for Gulf's energy industry

Oct. 1, 1999

The requirement for more advanced communications technology for the oil and gas production market is being met in the Gulf of Mexico by the deployment of a fiber-optic cable network. FiberWeb is an 850-km Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) ring created by Petroleum Communications Inc. (PetroCom--New Orleans), a communications provider in the Gulf, to link offshore oil and gas production platforms with the very latest in telecommunications technologies.

The construction of FiberWeb began last June to meet the demand for outsourced telecommunications in the offshore oil and gas industry and the demand for broadband communications. The cable is scheduled for service before the end of the year, initially running at a 2.5-Gbit/sec capacity. PetroCom expects the cable to have a minimum service life of 30 years.

The primary source of fixed communication in the Gulf has historically been via microwave signals. Up until now, microwave communications accounted for 97% of production companies' airtime. In 1997, three new digital point-to-point microwave systems were constructed by the industry to meet the requirement for improved communications, showing a growing demand for a more-reliable network with greater capacity. However, the microwave-communications network provided only marginal reliability improvements, due to interference from the severe weather conditions often experienced in the Gulf region. Fiber was chosen, therefore, to provide an infrastructure for more reliable high-volume, high-speed voice, data, and video capabilities.

The FiberWeb network will initially connect hub platforms owned by Exxon, Taylor Energy, Vastar, UnoCal, Chevron, and Shell. However, PetroCom points out there are more than 3700 potential locations--about 700 locations are manned 24 hours a day--that could connect to the digital fiber-optic backbone. Initially, the system will connect platforms on the edge of the deepwater areas near the continental shelf (see Figure). The route begins in Texas with a terrestrial link from Houston to Freeport. From Freeport, the network leaves the shoreline to platforms in East Banks, Garden Banks, South Marsh Island, Green Canyon, South Timbalier, and Mississippi Canyon. From Mississippi Canyon, the route leaves the water to connect with Port Fourchon and New Orleans in Louisiana. An interexchange carrier completes the SONET ring back to Houston.
The FiberWeb network is expected to open a new world of telecommunications capabilities for offshore oil and gas drilling platforms, including videoconferencing and high-speed Internet access.

The submarine cable's landfall points were of particular concern in terms of physical protection. During a normal day's offshore operations, the likelihood of a cable break in the region is high. Shrimp trawlers commonly harvest these areas and, despite PetroCom's efforts to educate users of the area about the fiber cable and where it will run, added protection was deemed a necessity. To add protection to the fiber, PetroCom acquired two decommissioned pipelines formerly owned by Exxon and Burlington Resources. These pipes extend offshore from Freeport and Fourchon about 10 mi and 5 mi, respectively. The fiber-optic cable will be pulled through these pipes to add protection at the landfall points. Additionally, the remaining cable will be buried 3 ft deep out to a water depth of 300 ft before it is deployed on the floor of the Gulf.

The need for a fiber-optic network was driven by several trends in the Gulf's oil and gas industry. First was the aggressive expansion of the energy industry into the Gulf, which resulted from new advanced deepwater drilling techniques. In 1992, most industry experts considered the Gulf a "dead sea" as far as new development was concerned. New methods for finding and producing oil and gas in very deep water created renewed interest in the region, and experts now estimate sufficient reserves for the next 25 years, justifying substantial investment by the oil companies.

Meanwhile, the increasing amount of real-time data being generated from seismic, wireline, and "measurement-while-drilling" activities is requiring cutting-edge data communications that offer high capacity for more bandwidth-intensive transmissions. There is also a trend toward increasing automation of the platforms to reduce the number of workers assigned to each. The need also exists to connect offshore infrastructure to land-based enterprise computing systems that typically operate at higher speeds than the legacy microwave networks could support. Increased compliance with growing regulatory oversight agencies, particularly in the area of safety and environmental concerns, and the desire to improve quality-of-life for offshore personnel, including the delivery of local cable-television and distance-learning programs have also pointed the way toward fiber-communications technologies.

"The legacy of technology currently being used in the Gulf [of Mexico] can no longer meet the performance expectations of the market," says John Payne, president of PetroCom. "As the energy industry has aggressively expanded in the deep water of the Gulf, it has demanded higher levels of [performance from] the cellular, microwave, and satellite service available today. In the ever-increasing water depths of today's and tomorrow's energy market, there is and will be a greater need for enhanced communications. Through FiberWeb's broadband capacity, we are doing just that."

FiberWeb is also expected to bring down the enormous costs involved with communications between offshore platforms and land-based facilities. PetroCom's goal is to partner with end users to lower traditional operating costs by 15% to 20%. Reliable bandwidth is expected to reduce the number of workers assigned to the platforms by increasing automation and robotic capabilities.

PetroCom has contracted with several companies to ensure FiberWeb's success. Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC-Goleta, VA) is deploying and connecting the undersea fiber-optic cable to the Gulf platforms. While one vessel lays the cable on the seafloor, a second-operating remotely controlled vehicles-trenches the seafloor and simultaneously buries the cable.

Tyco Submarine Systems Ltd. (Morristown, NJ), through its subsidiary, Simplex Technologies Inc., provided 850 km of SL-101 armored submarine fiber-optic cable. The SL-101 cable is designed for nonrepeatered submarine applications and has a design life of 25 years or more.

Fujitsu Business Communications Systems Inc. (Anaheim, CA) and General DataComm Inc. (Middlebury, CT) are supplying multiservice switches and SONET equipment for FiberWeb. A major benefit of the equipment is its scalability. As network usage increases, the network capacity can be upgraded to 10 Gbits/sec and beyond over the same fiber. In the initial phase of the project, Fujitsu is serving as system integrator for the network. Telcordia Technologies Inc. (Morristown, NJ) is providing operating software for the network.

"We truly believe that FiberWeb will raise the bar for communications in the Gulf," says Payne. "Ultimately, we believe FiberWeb will create simple network solutions by providing a better and more sophisticated communications network connected to global telecom systems."

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