Mining exploration company installs VoIP over broadband satellite link

A Quebec-based mining exploration company is using VoIP over a satellite link to connect its head office in Montreal with its mining camps located in the province’s far north.

Canadian Royalties Inc. has installed a 48-CVA PBX from TalkSwitch for voice over IP over a satellite link provided by RAMTelecom. The satellite link is being used for data and voice services over the public Internet.

“Once the satellite feed hits the main Expo camp (in northern Quebec), we’ve got a system of line-of-site Internet repeaters that cover about 40 km of the tundra and link up four separate facilities,” said Glen Schlyter, secretary-treasurer of Canadian Royalties.

The company installed a satellite system in 2002, but at that time running VoIP over satellite was too expensive. Instead, employees at the camps used handheld satellite phones, said Schlyter, though there was a 100 per cent chance of dropping a call within the first five minutes. There were also periods of the day when it was impossible to get a connection to initiate a call — or for outside callers to dial in.

“When you’re that isolated, if you have one connection to the outside world and you don’t know if it’s going to work, that’s a real problem,” said Chris Brennan, media relations manager with TalkSwitch in Ottawa.

But using the public switched telephone network (PSTN) wasn’t an option. “Because they’re so remote there’s no traditional telephone connection to the camps, so they were incurring massive phone bills,” said Brennan. “Satellite technology is expensive — $8 or $9 a minute.”

Aside from the expense, there was a fair amount of operational coordination taking place over the phone and e-mail, neither of which was reliable, which made it difficult to deal with suppliers or participate in conference calls with head office — or keep in touch with family members.

But last year, its satellite provider, RAMTelecom, upgraded its technology to prioritize voice packets over the entire satellite segment through a service called LinkStar. RAMTelecom purchases its bandwidth from Telesat Canada, a satellite communications company owned by BCE Inc. RAMTelecom then redistributes that available bandwidth to multiple clients on the network. “We redistribute it through multiple satellite systems to give every customer QoS and packet prioritization,” said Gilles Desmarais, president and chief operating officer of RAMTelecom in Ottawa.

The satellite link provides speeds from 256 Kbps to 10 Mbps, depending on the application. “There’s a bit of latency, but what we provide is better than traditional mobile communications,” said Desmarais.

Now when a VoIP call is initiated, the packets are prioritized and have their own defined bandwidth, so there are no noticeable delays, according to Schlyter. “We had tested VoIP in the past without the defined bandwidth, without the packet prioritization,” he said. “You could get a VoIP call through sometimes but certainly not all the time and certainly not approaching reliability.”

Canadian Royalties wanted the full functionality of a PBX, so RAMTelecom integrated technology from TalkSwitch to provide local communications between the camps and local voicemail. The TalkSwitch 48-CVA VoIP-enabled private branch exchange is located at its main Expo camp with 10 hard-wired analogue telephones. Its three outbound camps have VoIP extensions connected through a direct line-of-site IP network over the tundra. This serves a camp population of about 80 employees during the summer months. The camps shut down for the winter, as does the system.

Certain phones are designated for public use, while one line is configured for business use only. TalkSwitch provides employees with local voicemail, so they don’t have to dial into Montreal, and they can communicate between camps with three-digit dialling.

RAMTelecom serves as the first line of support, so there are no technicians at any of the camps. “We can remotely diagnose problems, we can access their box through the satellite system and do some minor adjustments,” said Desmarais. “The only thing they have to do locally is record greetings.”

Last summer, in its first season of use, there were no major problems with the system — with one exception. “The only outage that we had last year of any significance was when some foxes chewed through the fibre optic line that connected the satellite dish to the office,” said Schlyter. A den of baby foxes decimated about 10 metres of cable, which is now encased in armour.

Canadian Royalties recovered its investment in the system during its first season. But its biggest return may be reliable phone and Internet service. It’s easy for people in urban centres to discount the importance of telephone communications, said Schlyter. “But if you’re working on a remote project, if you’re 1,700 km north of Toronto, if you’re in the middle of the tundra,” he said, “all of a sudden reliable telephone communications becomes almost essential.”

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