LTE demo will test broadband for oil fields

LTE is generating excitement in the world of consumer electronics and ever-faster online video viewing, but the 4G (fourth-generation) mobile network technology may have even greater implications for specific industries that lack a good means of connectivity.

Texas Energy Network, a startup in Houston, will focus on the oil and gas industry in an LTE (Long-Term Evolution) test next week. Using equipment from Alcatel-Lucent, TEN hopes to demonstrate that LTE can bring more economical Internet access to drilling and exploration sites in the vast oil fields of the Permian Basin, which spans western Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

Most of the oil drilling in this region of about 25 counties takes place far from the populated areas where most cellular networks are concentrated, said TEN Chief Technology Officer Stan Hughey. As a result, oil and gas companies often are on their own when it comes to sending critical real-time data such as flow, pressure and volume from equipment in the field, he said. When mobile exploration teams are out looking for new fields, they need to make audio and video calls and generate large amounts of geological data that needs to be sent back to headquarters.

TEN, led by former Qwest Communications International executive Gregory Casey, wants to be an independent service provider for these companies, setting up and managing its own network. So far, the company is only looking at LTE.

"It appears to us it's becoming a de facto standard," Hughey said. Most mobile operators around the world that plan to deploy 4G networks have chosen LTE, a trend that bodes well for relatively high-volume, low-cost client devices once networks go live. Having a wide selection of clients was an important factor for TEN, Hughey said.

Today, most oil and gas companies rely on narrowband point-to-point wireless links (comparable to dial-up) using unlicensed radio spectrum, according to Hughey. Some lay fiber across their oil fields. For exploration, which requires high bandwidth and mobility, they often use satellite VSATs (very small aperture terminals). These can offer more than 1M bps (bit per second) but at a higher cost and with more delay than LTE, he said. It's also likely that LTE client equipment will be much less expensive than VSATs, Hughey said.

The test will use one base station and last about a week, according to Alcatel-Lucent. The oil industry presents different challenges from consumer mobile data networks, said Mark Madden, Alcatel's regional vice president of energy markets in the Americas. As with utilities setting up smart grids, the main purpose of the network is to send many small streams of data in from the field, he said. "The needs of the entire energy sector are uplink-focused," Madden said.

The other difference is that the geographic reach of a base station is more important than densely packing base stations into an area to cover many simultaneous users. Alcatel is hoping to demonstrate its LTE base station working over a range of 20 miles, Madden said.

Alcatel said players in a number of vertical industries including health care, transportation and public safety have expressed interest in LTE. But this will be the first time Alcatel actually demonstrates LTE for an energy-sector application, Madden said.

Before it can move from tests to deployment, TEN will need radio spectrum licenses across the region. The company is now talking with several spectrum holders, Hughey said. The company plans to use paired spectrum, with one band for upstream and one for downstream traffic. It's not clear yet what spectrum TEN will be able to use, but the company would like to tap into the 700MHz band, the same range that Verizon Wireless plans to use for its LTE network, coming later this year. In general, the 700MHz band offers greater reach per cell site than higher bands.

Alcatel said it could adapt to different bands depending on where TEN gets its licenses. Alcatel wouldn't comment on how much bandwidth its equipment could deliver, saying that depends on how much spectrum TEN has.

If LTE works as expected and the frequencies are available, it will probably take between 12 and 18 months to roll out the network, TEN's Hughey estimated. The service provider hopes later to expand to other parts of the U.S. and potentially other countries.

However, the company remains focused on the oil and gas industries. If it does allow private residents of the Permian Basin to hop on to the LTE network, its service-level agreements with oil companies will have to come first, Hughey said.

"You wouldn't want somebody throwing a slingbox on there and taking bandwidth off the network," Hughey said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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