Mining company digs Ethernet and IP

Toronto-based Falconbridge Ltd. prides itself on finding long-life ore bodies, but these days the mining company is also turning its attention to get as long a life as possible out of its communication equipment.

At its Kidd Creek Mine in Timmins, Ont., the cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum-products producer uses a converged voice, video and data network to maintain communication between people working underground and those way up the ramp.

According to Bruno Battochio, the communications specialist at Kidd Creek (in operation since the 1960s), Falconbridge is building an Ethernet network as the mine expands. The company uses this fibre optic-based connection conduit to provide phones for contractors working below the surface. The network also supports video feeds so people above ground can control rock breakers paving a way into the copper deposit, and the network provides data links to programmable logic controllers (PLCs) on fans, water pumps and other mining infrastructure in the deep environs.

How deep? Battochio said Falconbridge has developed the mine to around 7,000 feet, and expects to reach 10,000 feet before considering the operation spent. The CN Tower, the world’s tallest building, is 1,815 feet tall.

Regarding voice connectivity, some of the phones installed underground are IP handsets — they use the Internet protocol to send and receive, and they plug right into the existing Ethernet ports for data connectivity. That spells simple deployment, Battochio said.

“We have several contractors in, commissioning things like new rock breakers…all the stuff related to the shaft, the cages and whatnot. Often they have to communicate with vendors on what they’re doing. There’s an Ethernet switch right there, so we give them a voice-over-IP (VoIP) set so they can do all their work from that location, rather than running up or down one level to a phone.”

Battochio said Falconbridge also has phones in the refuge stations — safe havens for workers should anything go wrong in the mine. He said the digital phones there can provide dial tones via VoIP and by more traditional technology.

“If [users] press the emergency button, they’re actually grabbing an analogue trunk,” Battochio said, adding that the dual-mode set up adds a layer of communication protection.

The phones feed into one of many Business Communication Managers (BCMs), voice-data devices built by Nortel Networks. Battochio said Falconbridge chose Nortel’s equipment because it made sense to go with a familiar vendor.

“Our main system’s a (Nortel) Meridian 51C. Voice being as important as it is underground, I stuck with Nortel….The Meridian line is bulletproof.”

It’s also familiar to Falconbridge’s electrical department, which maintains the phone infrastructure below the mine’s collar where the shaft starts. “If you start introducing too much new technology, there’s a learning curve,” Battochio said. “We felt by using the BCM, there’s still your traditional analogue phone lines that they’re (the electrical department) familiar with troubleshooting.”

Industry analysts have said it can be difficult to decide who’s in charge when networks converge. Should the data networking experts take care of voice and video as well? Does the task fall to the telecom group?

Battochio said that’s not much of a problem for his team. “In our case it’s always been handled through our IT group. We had control over both systems (voice and data), you could say.”

Nonetheless, “you still get some of that territorial thing between the groups,” Battochio said, pointing out that automation used to belong to the engineering department. But as the Ethernet network increasingly supports that task, automation becomes evermore IT’s baby.

According to Becky Lance, senior manager, product marketing for BCM at Brampton, Ont.-based Nortel, the Falconbridge installation is “unique. The BCM was designed to be a converged voice and data solution for small- to medium-sized businesses and enterprise branch offices. Clearly it’s worked out in a sort of branch office type of situation for Falconbridge.”

Battochio said Falconbridge plans to add BCMs at Kidd Creek as the mine continues to grow — something it was supposed to stop doing a few years ago.

“We found the deep mine,” he said, explaining that the company discovered more ore than expected. “We’ve got 12 to 15 years now.” Battochio added that the next step is to install a BCM at the 8,300-foot level; that should provide connectivity all the way down to the 10,000-foot level in the future.

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