Are We There Yet? A Glimpse at the Unique Challenges in Oil and Gas Telecom

June 27, 2024

Are We There Yet? A Glimpse at the Unique Challenges in Oil and Gas Telecom

By Austin Shields

This blog post sheds light on the unique challenges found in the offshore oil and gas telecommunication industry. Within the past 40 years, telecommunications within the oil and gas sector have seen their fair share of advancements. As the offshore oil and gas industry delves into deeper water and more remote production fields, the need for subsea fiber optic links has become essential to support connectivity needs for production automation, monitoring, and quality of life for personnel. Suppliers of these subsea networks which are designed to support the offshore oil and gas sector face a steep learning curve and unfamiliar waters distant from their cozy, traditional telecom seascape.

History of Oil and Gas Telecommunications

The history of oil and gas telecom and its interactions with the ‘traditional’ telecom industry is unfortunately marred by over-confidence, cultural misalignment, and false-starts. Surely, with the breadth of new state-of-the art technologies and a deeper understanding of the strict requirements of operating near offshore oil and gas assets, we must be close to a convergence, right? The answer is a resounding, “Well, maybe . . .”

Oil and gas telecommunications began in the 1980s with a few major successes since then (Petrobras Campos Basin, BP-GoM – now owned by Tampnet), and a few not-so-successful attempts (e.g., FiberWeb, Sonangol Offshore Optical Cable). The fact of the matter here is oil and gas, and by extension the oil and gas telecom industry, presents challenges to the typical practices adopted within the traditional telecom industry. How these challenges are addressed helps paint a picture of where we have been and where we are headed. Let’s take a look at the key differences between these two industries and explore how they have been handled in the past, and how they can be improved upon for future success.

Culture and Management

The first major difference between traditional telecom and oil and gas telecom lies in the culture and management of the key players. What we can call the traditional telecommunication industry was born over 160 years ago and has developed steadily through cooperation and close integration between different countries. The oil and gas industry, in contrast, is younger and was born naturally out of competition, both for production resources and for ship supply and installation resources. With the privatization of subsea cables in recent decades, there has been a move to converge these two styles, but the history of traditional telecom leads to an ingrained management culture that does not always sit well in the oil and gas industry. Still today, when presented with the voluminous documentation, processes, and technical requirements (in some cases, oil and gas telecom technical requirements can exceed 100+ separate documents with labyrinthian cross-references!), some traditional telecom suppliers would rather no-bid and avoid the challenge altogether. Some top suppliers, however, have learned that building a strong foundation of communication, document control, and collaboration with the army of subcontractors placed between you and the end-client is essential to successfully navigating oil and gas telecom projects.

Health and Safety, Quality, and Project Management (PM)

Okay, so we need to listen, communicate, and stay organized. Sounds easy enough.

Not so fast.

Health and Safety, Quality Assurance, and Project Management are the next major hurdles separating the traditional telecom industry with oil and gas. The inherent hazards in dealing with oil and gas assets lead naturally to a strict regime of Quality Assurance and Project Management practices that are simply unheard of within traditional telecom. A massive effort and attention to detail is undertaken by the oil and gas industry to not only reduce incidents and accidents, but also the potential for incidents and accidents. This level of detail requires a major time and personnel commitment that most traditional telecom suppliers are unfamiliar with, and unwilling to handle. In traditional telecom, a health and safety or quality mistake might bring a delay or a fine – an impromptu cable cut, a low-speed collision with a fishing vessel, warranty claims and replacement of equipment. In oil and gas, a health and safety or quality mistake, even one as simple as a chef not using protective gloves while preparing a meal onboard, could be . . . disastrous.

The Mumbai High North disaster from 2005


Design and Installation Practices

Point taken – the stubborn, ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mentality just doesn’t cut the mustard in oil and gas. But at least the technology and installation methods from traditional telecom are up to the task, right? Well . . . yes and no.

As I mentioned earlier, the technical requirements’ page count for oil and gas telecom projects can number in the thousands, with some unique installation requirements buried among the generic which are quite atypical to traditional telecom. Navigating a cable installation vessel through an oil field is dangerous and requires the utmost care, for obvious reasons (did you see the flames??). Driving a plough up to a remote shore end or racing along a surface laying operation at 10 knots across the Pacific Ocean are easy compared to traversing through a congested oil and gas field littered with oil wells, pipelines, production platforms, mooring lines, and more. My point here is that accuracy is essential. Many oil and gas telecom projects require an extremely accurate cable lay (+/- 30m to the planned route), which in turn requires the use of a secondary vessel to perform touchdown monitoring – live video monitoring of the cable touchdown point with an ROV. Your installation plan just tripled in time (and cost!) in order to meet these requirements, which, by the way, are non-negotiable.

Are We There Yet?

The question regarding a convergence in traditional telecom and oil and gas telecom industries remains to be seen, but I think we are getting closer. The culture of the older (and wiser?) traditional telecom industry still tends to clash with the more comprehensive, safety-oriented oil and gas industry. Perhaps this sense of stubborn know-it-all-ism that tends to pop up on both sides is generational, but one can hope for a better future if we put ourselves in each other’s shoes. Safety and quality are key to the success of ANY project, not just those that might lead to an environmental disaster. Communication, organization, and cooperation are paramount to breaching the gap between these two industry’s priorities. Accuracy of design and installation are important, but accuracy in planning is also essential, so make sure you read all those requirements and understand what you are getting yourself into before you sign on the dotted line.

For comments or questions, or if you are interested in learning more about the oil and gas telecommunication industry, please contact us: [email protected].


Photo Source:
Walker, Steve (2007-06-06). “Mumbai High North Accident.”

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