Company merges 4G and satellites to bring reliable communications to the outback

ABC • February 16, 2017

Mobile service provider Pivotel Group is building custom-designed mobile network bases using 4G and satellite connectivity for use on pastoral stations, mine sites and oil and gas projects.

Called the ecoSphere, it offers secure point-to-point voice, video, tracking and monitoring connections.

Key points:

  • Pivotel Group builds custom-designed mobile network bases using 4G and satellite connectivity
  • System could provide an alternative to landline phones
    Provides complete communications for pastoral stations, mine sites, and oil and gas projects
  • Remote communications have been a bugbear for rural communities and industries that often struggle just to get enough connection to send or receive a mobile phone call.

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Six antennae satellite dishes are part of a ground station at Dubbo
that communicates with Globalstar satellites.

Despite the launch of the Federal Government’s Sky Muster satellite, communities also suffer from download speeds so slow they make normal business operations almost impossible.

Now they face the possibility of losing the only reliable communications systems many of them have, the landline phone.

The Productivity Commission has recommended the Federal Government save money by removing the current requirement to provide basic telephones, a move angrily received in the bush.

Pivotel chief executive Peter Bolger said providing a better alternative to landlines was one of the opportunities ecoSphere could provide.

Voice services part of new network

Typically, the Universal Service Obligation (the legislation on landlines) was for voice services only.

“But voice services absolutely run over the network we’ve developed, which incorporates 4G networks,” Mr Bolger said.

“4G networks are designed for much higher speed anyway, so it’s a very simple service to run voice with that.”

Many rural and remote areas are the home of farms, pastoral stations and mining companies that have become so frustrated with the communications systems on offer they have been jerry-rigging their own systems.

The vexed issue of internet speed, mobile phones and loss of landlines may be addressed with new trial.

Making remote communications work

Mr Bolger said marrying the 4G network with custom-built base stations meant high-speed ability for a large number of applications.

“It provides complete communications, particularly around machine to machine, such as on mine sites and other remote industrial sites, but there is also a lot of voice and video applications that will be picked up as well,” he said.

“Prior to launch of 4G, the mobile phone networks were built up around voice services first.

“With the emergence of 4G, it’s built around data first, so voice goes over the top of the data network very easily.

“And in development is another standard piece that supports very, very low power and also have very long life batteries.

“That’s best for sensors, so the machine to machine [data] business that’s coming about.”

Role for NBN

Another service that has yet to live up to its promise, particularly for the rural sector, is the National Broadband Network (NBN).

However, Mr Bolger said the NBN was also an enabler of the system, as much as a dedicated satellite.

“The NBN entitles all farm owners, all properties, who have NBN connection to the home,” he said

“But that doesn’t provide mobile phone coverage on their properties; their workplace is out on the farm, not necessarily in their homes.

“So we use that NBN to connect to the mobile base stations [purpose-built on properties], which will provide complete coverage at high speed.

“But it’s also for low speed, low power if for example you want to carry out simple tasks like monitoring water levels or soil quality.”

Communications systems in modern agriculture

Farmers and pastoralists have been using telemetry for some time, being able to open and close gates, measure water and other comparatively simple tasks.

“A lot of it has been happening around UHF [shortwave radios] and it’s very specific,” Mr Bolger said.

“We’re talking about bringing high speed voice, video, data, onto a single terminal where your iPad and mobile phone will work.”

Mr Bolger said asset optimisation was a big aim.

“I see in the future every single piece of livestock — cattle or sheep or goats — could potentially be tracked, and their own biometric conditions monitored so that you can say, maximise growth rate, minimise animal loss through theft, death and poor feed.

“Cattle farmers spend a very large amount of time simply going around making sure they’ve got decent water, decent food supply and they need to do it regularly.

“That is incredibly time consuming and it could be done via this system with simple monitoring and video cameras.”