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Case Study: Mobile Radio & Microwave Communications Systems in West Africa

December 31, 2020

Since 2008, we have been fortunate to be the mobile radio and microwave communications system consultants for a large oil and gas operation in West Africa. The facilities include 3 production platforms in the Gulf of Guinea, and 3 expansive complex processing plants on shore.

The mobile radio system is a 19 channel, multiple site trunked wide-area network that provides critical voice communications for as many as 500 users at any one time.

The mobile system operates in the lower 400 MHz frequency band. The radio channel frequencies are assigned by the local regulator and required considerable negotiation by our Client.

The mobile system provides reliable voice communications for handheld radios operating throughout 3 separate, large processing plants, the administration, the living quarters and the local City that is approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) distance from the plants.

The processing plants are constructed entirely of complex steel structures with congested piping throughout the plant areas.

The plants include “bunker-grade” explosion resistant control rooms that required supplementary in-building distributed antenna systems (DAS) for handheld communications between personnel inside the buildings with personnel throughout the plant operating areas.

The mobile system also provides direct mobile communications between shore-based handheld radio users and personnel on the production platforms that are located in the Gulf of Guinea over 32 kilometers distance (20 miles) from shore.

A separate mobile radio system was also implemented for handheld radio communications between personnel operating on the 3 production platforms.

The microwave system provides broadband voice and data communications between the shore-based facilities and the production platforms. The microwave path is approximately 32 kilometers (20 miles) over water.

The microwave system operates in the 6.5 GHz frequency range and has a payload bandwidth of over 150 Mbps.

In addition to the main microwave link between the shore facilities and the main production platform, there are 2 short-haul links (approximately 5 kilometer/3 mile paths) over water between the main platform and 2 satellite platforms.

The mobile and microwave systems were designed by PALIDOR starting in 2008. The system design was completed in 2009 and was fully implemented between 2011 and 2012.

The complete implementation was managed by PALIDOR.

The mobile radio and the microwave systems have worked flawlessly from the initial power-up stage to present day (February 2021) without system malfunctions or system performance problems.

PALIDOR also designed managed the implementation a long-haul broadband microwave link between the production platforms and a drilling rig that was positioned at various sites in the Gulf of Guinea with microwave path distances ranging from 18 km (11 miles) to 29 km (18 miles) over water.

For all the above, PALIDOR had full responsibility working with the Client’s project management team from the concept and planning stage, through the design to full system implementation, system acceptance and commissioning.

The Contractors for the supply and installation of the mobile radio and microwave communications systems were North American based Companies ( 1 from Canada, and 1 from the USA). All personnel were based in North America.

##CHALLENGES

###Technical Challenges

The biggest technical challenge was the design of the 32 km (20 mile) over-the-water microwave link.

The combination of the distance over water and the bandwidth requirements required unwavering adherence to sound design principles for ensuring a high reliability RF link and relative network simplicity in view of the remote and isolated location that was not readily accessible by qualified service or maintenance companies. . Various RF path and network configurations were analyzed, and it was determined a spatial diversity antenna system for the receivers was the most practical, reliable and cost-effective design.

The disadvantage was the need for robust antenna structures at sufficient elevations to support two 2.4 meter (8 ft) parabolic antennas at each end of the link.

The antennas have a very narrow beamwidth that cannot not tolerate any significant deviations in azimuth or elevation to be able to maintain high reliability data and voice communications under extreme weather conditions that are typically encountered in the Gulf of Guinea.

The next technical challenge was to design the mobile radio system to provide reliable radio communications for handheld radios operating throughout the 3 plants, the administration, the living quarters and the local City that was approximately 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the plant area.

The system ultimately included a main radio communications tower and facility and 3 “fill” or satellite transmitter and receiver sites. The radio channels at all of the sites were networked to provide end-to-end handheld radio communications throughout all required areas.

A mobile radio system was also implemented on the production platforms in the Gulf of Guinea for handheld radio communications between personnel on the 3 platforms.

###Implementation & Logistical Challenges

The major implementation challenges were logistical.

The remote and isolated location of the oil and gas facilities in West Africa required that every component and piece of hardware required for the implementation of the system needed to be shipped from the Contractor’s facilities in North America.

There are no companies or dealers in the area in West Africa that would be able to supply any hardware or equipment that might be missing from the shipment or damaged or fail during the implementation phase.

There are no local hardware stores to supply simple hardware that might have been missed in the shipment from North America or might be lost during the installation.

The West African Country’s custom regulations require at least 2 weeks or more for clearing the simplest material and equipment. Even urgent or expedited clearance of items shipped by air often take 2 weeks or more for customs clearance.

If the shipment includes any equipment that is considered to be sophisticated electronics or believed to have any military applications, the clearance process can be a month or more.

Every piece of hardware, including nuts, bolts, washers and wire needed to be carefully counted, documented and verified against the drawings and installation instructions.

Sufficient spares had to be included in the event of loss or damage on route or during installation.

If there are any equipment or parts deficiencies, or equipment fails during the implementation stage, the consequential delays and expenses are enormous.

All equipment had to be staged as complete systems and thoroughly tested at the Contractor’s facilities in North America before packing for shipment. PALIDOR traveled to the Contractor’s premises to monitor the tests on individual pieces of equipment and the staged system tests to verify that all equipment and the staged system complied with all design and installation specifications, and all equipment and materials were properly counted, itemized for the shipping waybills and for the importation documentation.

The West Africa Country customs agency required advanced notice of any equipment that may be considered suitable for military applications. Pre-approval was required by the Country’s custom officials before the equipment could be shipped from North America.

All Contractor’s personnel required pre-clearance by the West Africa Country’s immigration officials and clearance letters had to be sent by the immigration agency and received by the Contractors before the personnel departed North America.

No effort was spared in the planning and preparation stages in North America before the equipment and materials were packed and shipped.

##OUTCOME

The entire implementation process and the commissioning of the radio systems were completed without serious incidents.

All design and installation specifications were met and the system was successfully accepted, commissioned and placed into operation without any changes to the equipment or the system design.

##What Did We Learn?

Something we have always known, but worth repeating again and again:

There is no substitute for:

Success in this case is defined as:

We can unequivocally declare the project was, and still is a success.