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The VoIP Report

VoIP Improves Oil and Gas Industry Communications
April 19th, 2017

VoIP Improves Oil and Gas Industry Communications

Ian Linton

Businesses in the oil and gas industry face many unique communication challenges. VoIP can help mitigate these challenges and improve communications.

Businesses in the oil and gas industry face many unique communication challenges. They have to maintain contact with a widely dispersed global workforce, with many employees working in remote, hostile or offshore locations. The high level of risk factors in the industry means they must have sophisticated incident response and business continuity solutions in place.

Intense competition puts a premium on effective project management and collaboration to improve innovation and reduce time to market. But, with shrinking numbers of experienced employees, they need to capture knowledge and share it throughout the organization. And with continued pressure on energy prices, they must reduce costs across the board.

Cost-effective global communications

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) provides an advanced, cloud-based communication solution that can help oil and gas companies meet these challenges and cut their costs. The calls travel over the Internet, providing global reach, with satellite and offshore options to cover difficult locations.

VoIP simplifies infrastructure and support requirements with cloud-based systems, eliminating the cost of multiple legacy phone systems and support teams. And long-distance and international call costs are lower on the PSTN (public switched telephone network). In many cases, calls between company sites are free because VoIP treats connected sites as part of an internal network.

To improve collaboration and reduce international travel costs, VoIP includes audio, web and video conferencing facilities, available on any device. Plus, VoIP’s mobile capability means workers can maintain contact and work efficiently from any location.

Communicating with a global workforce

The nature of the oil and gas industry means that employees could be working anywhere in the world. Exploration teams could be working at sea or in remote locations in extreme conditions. Production workers could be based on offshore rigs or in large production plants. And operations and development teams could be based in offices in different countries.

Good communications are essential, allowing employees to exchange information and provide up-to-date reports to head office management teams. Head office teams also need to issue instructions and keep the workforce informed of developments within the company.

Communications help employees working in remote locations maintain contact with families, friends, and colleagues while they are on assignments. This can play an important role in recruiting and retaining staff to work in difficult conditions.

VoIP provides the essential tools to support communications from any location on any device, keeping employees in contact and smoothing the flow of information.

Keeping remote workers in contact

VoIP is available over satellite links where Internet access is limited. This solution is ideal for exploration teams or maintenance staff working on wells, pipelines and other equipment in remote locations.

Service providers claim that voice quality is consistent with standard VoIP quality via the Internet. Equipment manufacturers have developed ruggedized handsets, laptops, and tablets suitable for different environments where operating conditions are harsh.

Workers can use smartphones or other mobile to handle voice calls, send and receive emails, faxes, instant messages or texts, and participate in conference calls. They can also use VoIP to upload or access reports and other essential data. VoIP provides the equivalent of a portable office, enabling remote employees to work efficiently and productively anywhere in the world.

Maintaining offshore communications

Oil and gas companies need to maintain communications with employees working offshore on drilling and production rigs, tankers and other carriers, container ships, and maintenance vessels. They may also have employees and contractors working in shipbuilding yards, container facilities, and ports.

Offshore and maritime environments represent a major challenge for conventional communications. Conditions are harsh, but it is essential to maintain fast, reliable communication links between offshore employees and teams onshore to manage operations and maintain employee safety.

Back at base, engineers, production managers, technical staff and project teams rely on efficient communications to monitor progress on drilling and exploration and track production levels. And emergency teams and health and safety officials rely on communications that offer the highest levels of reliability.

VoIP services provide a robust, reliable solution for the maritime environment. Onboard communications run over a single local area network (LAN), while ship-to-shore communications can travel via satellite links or any Ethernet/fiber networks available in the region. VoIP’s global coverage also makes it suitable for ongoing communications with transport vessels moving around the world.

Equipment manufacturers have developed communications devices that are suitable for the harsh maritime environment. Handsets are available that are resistant to sea water, and weatherproof to IP65. Maritime phone devices are extremely robust and capable of operating in exposed marine areas where ice, dirt, oil and other pollutants can cause problems.

Communicating in processing plants

Processing plants also represent a difficult environment for communications. A high proportion of the workforce is mobile, working in dirty and noisy conditions. Plant operations teams need to maintain contact to issue instructions, make safety announcements and receive updates on production and maintenance.

Mobile workers can maintain contact via VoIP services on DECT phones or wireless wide area networks (WANs), using handsets and mobile devices designed for industrial environments. DECT phones offer high levels of protection against chemicals, dirt, dust and moisture, and incorporate noise suppression features that make it easier to hold calls.

VoIP can also deliver plant-wide announcements about production changes, emergency procedures, or company news over loudspeakers to keep workers informed. Reliable communications are particularly important in the event of an incident. Administrators can use VoIP’s broadcast facilities as a backup to other services to notify workers by voice call, instant message or text.

Keeping operations centers in contact

To control and coordinate global activities, oil and gas businesses set up operations centers in strategic regional or central locations.

Operations teams monitor activities in the field or in processing plants using reports from staff on-site or data from equipment sensors in remote locations. Increasingly, they rely on data from the Internet of Things (IoT) to obtain real-time status reports and reduce the cost of deploying local monitoring staff.

Operations teams use field data to plan or adjust production schedules and coordinate distribution to processing plants or downstream customers. They monitor equipment performance to identify potential problems or faults and put repair or maintenance programs into operation. They also coordinate logistics operations for supply chain members delivering essential equipment, materials, and other supplies to plants, rigs or remote locations.

VoIP helps operations teams communicate effectively with employees and colleagues in any location around the world. They can issue notifications and alerts by phone, email, text or instant message. Where necessary, they can discuss problems or detailed requirements with employees or subject experts using VoIP’s video conferencing and screen sharing facilities to achieve faster decisions.

Operating centers of excellence

The oil and gas industry faces a major challenge to progress because it is losing so many key employees with valuable knowledge, experience, and expertise. The declining numbers are due to the high proportion of baby boomers in the workforce who are now retiring.

To preserve and share expert knowledge, organizations are using knowledge management and social networking techniques to identify and capture subject matter expertise. They encourage employees to post details of their experience and areas of expertise on internal networks so that other employees can discover and access their knowledge.

They are also setting up virtual centers of excellence where employees can find and consult subject experts who work as a team to solve difficult problems.

VoIP supports virtual centers of excellence by providing collaboration tools that allow experts to hold meetings with employees or managers from any location. Employees can share operational and production data, and other important information with experts to get answers or solve problems.

VoIP’s directory and contact information make it easy for employees to find and reach the right expert quickly, which could be critical in the event of a disaster or production incident. This solves the problem of trying to find experts in siloed organizations when response time is critical.

Dealing with major incidents

Teams in centers of excellence play an important role in dealing with major incidents, such as well fires or other large-scale disasters that can have serious environmental impact. To limit damage, the centers can provide expert advice and guidance based on previous experience and industry best practice.

To coordinate rescue and recovery operations, VoIP gives operations centers a wide range of tools to communicate with employees, emergency services, and other parties. VoIP emerged as an important tool during the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Many of the vessels involved in the rescue operation found that onboard legacy phone systems were inadequate to deal with the scale of the problem.

Following the incident, government agencies, emergency response teams, service providers and rig owners and operators set up a joint initiative to improve communications by investing in specialist maritime VoIP systems.

Improving development and innovation

Away from operational issues, oil and gas businesses rely on efficient communication and collaboration tools to accelerate development and innovation so that they can bring products to market faster.

A 2015 report by the Aberdeen Group, “Connecting the Oil & Gas Enterprise through Improved Collaboration,” highlighted the importance of collaboration in improving overall business performance. Effective collaboration tools are essential in this global industry with a dispersed workforce that makes working together by traditional methods difficult and expensive.

According to research carried out for the report, the most important drivers for improved collaboration are the need to shorten product and project time to market (50 percent), need to decrease operational costs (39 percent), and a need to improve the innovation process (33 percent).

Competitive pressures are forcing oil and gas businesses to rethink how they can shorten time to market because success, survival, and profitability depend on meeting high-risk project deadlines.

The main collaboration focus is on the development stage, according to the Aberdeen Group. Exploration teams can consult experts quickly to find out if site samples meet a market requirement or have affordable extraction and processing characteristics. By reducing the time it takes to get expert input and informed management decisions, project teams can speed up each stage of development.

VoIP’s collaboration tools make it easy to set up virtual meetings with participants from many different locations using video or web conferencing and screen sharing to improve decision-making.

A platform for growth

VoIP helps the oil and gas industry meet its current challenges, particularly with the pressure on energy prices. It improves collaboration, provides access to knowledge and expertise, and brings together a global workforce, frequently working in remote or hostile locations.

But VoIP also has the capacity for growth. It can scale easily from the cloud to support new sites or additional users. It is also capable of integrating with business applications to create better workflows and improve efficiency even further.

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