Broadband  |   Satellite  |  2023-02-15

Ivanhoe Mines Exec Details How its Mining Operation Benefits from O3b

Source: The Critical Communications Review | Gert Jan Wolf editor

Ivanhoe Mines believes that satellite will play a larger part in its overall operations going forward

Ivanhoe Mines believes that satellite will play a larger part in its overall operations going forward. The company, which recently signed a capacity expansion with SES, is confident there is a lot more to come with satellite services. 

Anil Udayabhanu, head of technology at Kamoa Copper, an Ivanhoe Mines company, spoke to Via Satellite about how the company has used O3b connectivity in the remote area of Kamoa-Kakula in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for a mining project. The Kamoa-Kakula Mining Complex is projected to become the second largest copper complex globally. 

The company previously worked with Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites, but he said with high latency and higher cost, increasing bandwidth without changing the hardware was increasingly not an option. 

Udayabhanu said the company has been using SES’s O3b solution for the past five years and company’s exploration and construction team was happy with O3b. He said it gives the company higher throughput and flexibility to increase capacity without interrupting its business. 

“We are considering an O3b AVL solution for our remote exploration team who can carry the solution in a suitcase format in terms of hardware, which they can turn it on and you are connected to the world. O3b fuelled the entire exploration journey of Kamoa Copper to production. We didn’t have any fiber connections until we went to production. At the moment we have fiber connectivity from Airtel, O3b completes the WAN [wide area network] architecture requirement. And O3b gives us 99.99% availability. It is more reliable than fiber,” he said. 

Ivanhoe Mines began copper production at the Kamoa-Kakula joint-venture mine in the DRC in May 2021 at an annualized rate of approximately 200,000 metric tons of copper per year and is confident it will ramp up production. The company employs geologists and is always looking for new greenfield sites to mine. 

“Most of the mobile network operators in Africa rely on O3b for their backhaul and data capacity,” he says. “If MNOs are using it, then trust and reliability comes along. Operating in the DRC can have challenges. The characteristics of O3b are a perfect fit. You have a lower latency of 150 milliseconds that no other satellite solution can offer.”

However, more options are likely to come onto the market. A number of Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations are set to launch over the next few years. Udayabhanu believes solutions like OneWeb and Starlink are catching up but have a lot to prove. 

“Starlink is still not operational where we are located,” he said. “I have looked at Starlink. It hasn’t got the throughput that O3b terminal can do for us. Starlink might be a good option for retail/consumer business but it is definitely not an option for an enterprise like Kamoa Copper at least at this stage where it stands now.”

“OneWeb is still trying to find its feet,” Udayabhanu added. “They need to get a bit more matured to be considered for enterprise companies as a WAN solution. This is a long-term relationship with SES.” 

Udayabhanu describes a scenario in which an exploration team goes into the bush to drill holes into the ground, but has trouble connecting to share its findings. In the past, the company used BGAN terminals with GEO connectivity, but he said it was expensive for capacity of 1 Mbps to 2 Mbps. 

“All of our geologists would draft the emails and then turn on the BGAN device, send the email, and then shut it down. It was very expensive to keep it running all the time. Now, with the help of the O3b solution they are able to collaborate more efficiently with geologists and other key stakeholders that are located in other countries. It is amazing. It adds a lot of value to the whole organization,” Udayabhanu said. 

Kamoa Copper has purchased two pairs of terminals from SES and each pair of terminals can provide approximately 1 Gbps of capacity. 

“When we floated the tender for satellite solutions to various parties in the market, most GEO operators took part, but O3b stood out for us. Our technical team had never worked with an O3b solution before, so there were lots of questions related to moving components, etc. We were curious and wanted to know how the link stays connected when it hands over from one dish to the second dish. Do we lose the packets on the network? I can now confirm it stays connected. SES took us through the entire process, and practically proved it,” Udayabhanu said. 

Kamoa Copper recently increased its capacity on O3b by 500 Mbps, when it previously had 150 to 200 Mbps capacity. Udayabhanu said the company is still looking for more capacity and as the business continues to grow, there should be more growth in capacity. 

He believes O3b should be the first preference for mining companies that intend to start a greenfield mining project. 

“In the host country where you are operating, there is a little or no chance that a telecom operator would come and extend their connectivity to a remote location for 100 to 200 people, as this is not economically viable for them,” Udayabhanu said. “Low latency satellite options like O3b would be one of the best options to be considered. But, this is not only for mining, the same applies to oil and gas as well.”