Bespoke networks keep remote sites connected

Remotely-sited operations still need to be connected to their head office and the rest of the world. Bespoke, microwave-based networks provide the answer.

Johannesburg, 28 Sep 2021
Read time 4min 00sec
Chris Wilken, Head of Planning, Comsol Networks.
Chris Wilken, Head of Planning, Comsol Networks.

Remote areas, much like large industrial complexes, inevitably provide challenging environments in which to implement communications infrastructure for data and internet-based services.

This is because no service provider offers complete countrywide coverage, explains Chris Wilken, Head of Planning at Comsol Networks, simply because there is seldom an effective business case for such an approach.

“This is where the need for some form of bespoke solution comes into play, especially for mines, which are inevitably far away from most regular forms of connectivity. Enterprises like these, therefore, need a solution developed specifically for their connectivity needs,” he says.

“Consider a mine based in the remote Northern Cape. If this development requires, for example, a 100Mbps connection on-site, to be able to communicate with its head office in Johannesburg, satellite becomes extremely expensive. It also can't offer the high capacities often needed in a digital world. However, a bespoke microwave link can provide the necessary coverage, at high capacity, in a much more cost-effective manner, and with equal or better service level agreements (SLAs).”

He adds that as operations in these far-flung regions begin to realise it is possible to get this kind of high capacity delivered even to remote areas, so the shift to these kinds of microwave solutions will accelerate.

"While the microwave is a logical choice, satellite, LTE or GSM are all possibilities, depending on the client’s requirements and what sort of coverage the mobile technologies have. Comsol always recommends terrestrial microwave, since it is both robust as a technology and also negates fears around issues such as cable theft.”

To implement such a bespoke solution, Wilken continues, it is important to work with a partner that has a skills set crafted over a long period of time. This includes experienced site survey technicians who bring in technologies, like drones, to confirm line of sight. Also, they must have strong relationships with third-party vendors in order to piece the connectivity solution together.

“Another area where this type of solution is invaluable is within port facilities, not to mention large industrial environments like steel manufacturers. These may not be sited remotely, but because they have a large campus in an industrial setting, they may need a bespoke solution to ensure they are receiving the best quality wireless signal throughout.

“In such an instance, it is important to understand how vital the human element remains. A solutions architect is critical here, as they bring with them the knowledge that will help them determine where and when interference may arise, the potential impact of equipment vibrations and many other, similar challenges.”

It is necessary to have someone on site who intimately understands both the physical make-up of the technology to be implemented, as well as its characteristics, to ensure it is suited to the environment it will be used in. Wilken suggests these types of industrial environments can be harsh on microwave signals, so the technical knowledge of the solutions architect is vital.

“They will make sure to specify enterprise-grade licensed band solutions - to mitigate the risk of radio frequency interference - coupled with robust backup power autonomy solutions at repeat high-sites. All in an effort to ensure an SLA-based service in the most remote of areas,” he says.

Of course, he continues, while the solution architect is ‘front and centre’ in the planning and implementation, the success of such a bespoke design depends just as much on a host of other players.

“For one thing, the network operations team assists with design and understanding of the network protocols, concerning the network design. Other players are involved in obtaining the licences for the microwave links from ICASA. Then some third-party vendors need to be liaised with, not to mention procurement, logistics and warehousing, field services management, the provisioning team undertaking network integration, and the National Operational Centre (NOC), to provide monitoring and support following implementation.

“Looking at this, it’s no wonder that many implementations of this nature are initially governed by cost. However, in my experience, enterprises like these soon discover - once the solution is implemented - that there is far more capability available in such networks, should they choose to access it. It doesn’t take long for most to find the additional budget for this, demonstrating how game-changing these bespoke network solutions can be,” concludes Wilken.

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