Expro drills down into the satellite communications market

Satellite communication is often the only option for workers in remote regions, but UK-based oilfield service company Expro says not all suppliers offer the same business value.

Satellite communication is often the only option for workers in remote regions, but UK-based oilfield service company Expro says not all suppliers offer the same business value.

Listed on the London Stock Exchange, Expro has a presence in more than 50 countries, with about a third of its 4,000 employees in Europe, a third in the US and the rest distributed across South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Expro's business is providing a variety of services and equipment to the oil and gas industry, but this typically involves working in the remotest regions of the world that lack viable fixed-line communication infrastructures.

Faced with the challenge of reliable connections between staff in Africa and the company's e-mail, financial, ERP, health and safety, and other administrative systems, Expro decided the best connectivity option was a satellite-based system.

"Staff relied on mobile phones and web-based e-mail services from local ISPs, but there was no support for linking into corporate systems," said Martin Ogden, Expro's head of infrastructure and operations support, group IT.

In an extensive tendering process to choose a supplier to deploy the technology, Expro found most were very good in developed regions, but not in Africa. One exception was Global Telecom and Technology (GTT).

"GTT is not tied to any one carrier or any one service provider, which enables it to source bandwidth and network connectivity from the most appropriate carrier to obtain the best deal for its customers," said Ogden.

Other key factors in GTT's favour included its experience in delivering services into Africa, its established contacts in Nigeria and Angola, and its familiarity with local legislation. "GTT was able to handle the satellite licensing process, which would otherwise have been a difficult thing for Expro to do," said Ogden.

Katie Liddle, GTT senior sales manager, said "GTT focuses on managing strong relationships with satellite service providers and local incumbent telcos. If any new providers enter the market, we are quick to form relationships with them too. We see this as a key strategy for adding business value to corporate customers."

GTT works with industries including banking, manufacturing, automotive, legal, and media, with most of its Very Small Aperture Terminal (VSat) customers in the gas and oil industry. It has links with suppliers Europe, Eastern Europe, North and South America, Middle East, and Asia, including China. GTT is headquartered in Washington with offices in New York, London, Paris Dusseldorf and New Delhi.

Expro also saw value in GTT's ability to bundle all the satellite equipment into the cost of the project and take on the responsibility of sourcing and purchasing satellite equipment and shipping it to Africa.

"Apart from signing the contract and a brief specifications meeting, we did not get involved until the configuration of the hardware. GTT managed all the logistics," said Ogden.

GTT deployed VSat satellite technology to one Expro site in Angola and three in Nigeria, including one on a barge in a swamp in the Niger Delta.

Standard VSat equipment was used for the installations, but Expro has been able to realise added value by going through a systems integrator such as GTT. Proactive monitoring and troubleshooting with local suppliers forms part of the managed service.

VSats are two-way satellite ground stations with small dish antennas that access satellites in geosynchronous orbit to relay data at speeds of up to four megabits per second.

Expro's Nigerian and Angolan offices now have the same direct access to all core systems, services, applications, and servers and as other Expro sites.

Frost and Sullivan estimate there are about 60,000 VSats installed across the Middle East and Africa, up from 7,000 in 2002. This suggests VSat technology is the primary means for business critical communications in these regions.

"Although we have been entirely happy with the performance of the VSats since they were deployed last year, one of the lessons we have learned is to make sure there are enough UPS systems in place to cope with erratic power supplies," said Ogden.

VSat communications typically cost more to run than fixed-line systems and often require large up-front investments in equipment, but Ogden said the business value of links far outweighed the operating costs.

He said GTT had also reduced the impact of the capital expenditure by amortising the equipment costs over the length of the contract.

Several months after the sites in Nigeria and Angola went live, Expro plans to continue expanding its satellite communications to connect staff working on both short and long term projects in remote regions. Expro's office in Egypt is next in line.

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