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A subsidiary of the Hong Kong-listed conglomerate CITIC Limited, CITIC Pacific Mining (CPM) is the developer and operator of mining, processing, and port operations in Western Australia. Its flagship project — the Sino Iron project — is the largest magnetite mining and processing operation in Australia, supplying high-quality magnetite iron ore to steel mills in China. Sino Iron is expected to contribute approximately $75 billion in direct revenue to Australia’s economy over the course of its operation in the iron-rich region of Pilbara.
Connectivity gaps from mine to portside
CPM initially sought to refresh its ageing data center infrastructure to minimize outage risks to its integrated mining operations, selecting Huawei based on testimonials about its hardware performance and cost effectiveness. However, CP Mining’s engineers also faced a more endemic issue: gaps in connectivity between mine sites, ports, and ships tasked with transporting the company’s ore overseas.
“We needed a fixed communications infrastructure between our ships, ports, and remote sites to coordinate our increasingly complex and high-volume operations,” explained Mark O’Brien, Manager, Digital Transformation, CPM. “We’d been looking to implement a fleet management system across our mines so we could better track and optimize our operations. At the same time, our portside teams had faced ongoing reliability issues when trying to connect to offshore ships with channels like public 3G and WiMAX, which often incurred increased costs and maintenance times for our staff. We needed robust, reliable wireless infrastructure to underpin our operations.”
After considering the use of traditional Wi-Fi mesh networks for connectivity at its mine, processing, and portside operations, CPM began exploring the use of a more ambitious solution: LTE. While the technology promised a much higher range and less ongoing adjustment than Wi-Fi — and at much lower cost than public 3G networks used at other ports in the city of Karratha, Pilbara in Western Australia — it also came with its fair share of unknowns. With LTE deployments for mining operations still relatively rare in Australia, CPM began searching for a solutions provider with a track record of similar deployments overseas.
“We’d seen other early-adopters of LTE, including other Australian miners, experience issues like network interference and unexpectedly high TCO,” O’Brien said. “I know of at least one miner that trialed carrier-grade LTE but found itself running up against the confines of an oversimplified solution that simply couldn’t meet the demands of industrial use.
“As we looked around the market, we discovered that Huawei had already overcome these issues at several major mine sites in China; upon visiting some of those sites, we saw use cases and conditions very similar to our own. Nobody else had implemented their fleet management system on LTE before, but Huawei’s overseas experience gave us the confidence to pioneer the approach with them, here in Australia.”
Huawei eLTE 4G network for high-performance, high-reliability connectivity
Huawei initially deployed its enhanced LTE (eLTE) infrastructure in a proof-of-concept at CITIC’s port terminal, delivering the high-speed, high-bandwidth services — such as push-to-talk and video streaming — that CPM required to better coordinate its operations. The proof-of-concept saw Huawei offer eLTE service to CPM for two months at only a fraction of the cost of full-scale deployment, giving the firm’s digital team ample time to test-drive the solution.
“By the time we finished the proof-of-concept, our portside teams were insisting we didn’t decommission Huawei’s hardware — they were that delighted with the connectivity they were now getting!” said O’Brien. “Being able to stress-test the eLTE infrastructure without significant capital expenditure gave us the confidence that this network not only filled our communications gaps, but exceeded our expectations for 4G reach and stability in the remote areas where we operate. We were running our high-end database production systems on our vessels, and transmitting data back onshore for analysis, with uninterrupted connectivity — it was a game changer for all of us.”
At the same time, Huawei began deploying LTE infrastructure to CPM’s mining area, taking pains to minimize potential interference issues that might otherwise affect trucking and drilling operations. “Huawei is one of the only LTE operators worldwide to offer Layer 2 networking with multicast functionalities, which eliminates the risk of interference and disruption to signals being pushed to mining fleets,” explained Colin Hu, Managing Director, Huawei Australia. “Experience across other complex mine sites proved extremely useful to achieving a fast, high-quality deployment with almost zero disruption to CPM’s processes and a TCO equivalent to that of Wi-Fi mesh networks.”
The network deployments came after Huawei had built and migrated CPM to its new data center, designed around Huawei’s high-performance CloudEngine switches and FusionServer product. Both Huawei’s eLTE and data center deployments came with 24/7 managed service and maintenance, giving CPM’s digital team the peace of mind and the space to pursue higher-level applications of their new technology stack.
Seamless connectivity for enhanced productivity and innovation
Huawei’s eLTE network has significantly improved productivity throughout CPM’s operations, allowing seamless coordination between the mine, processing area, port, and vessels. “Huawei’s eLTE infrastructure has given us extremely reliable connectivity, even where we know we haven’t yet optimized the network for the most stable performance,” O’Brien said. “It now plays a key role in everything our portside teams do, from tracking vessels to understanding cycle times and optimizing cargo movements. I’ve been up to 10 km from shore and still gotten excellent coverage — the quality of service is truly empowering.”
Much of the eLTE deployment’s success stems from its relatively low footprint, in both physical hardware and maintenance time. “When we show off the equipment to other parties, they’re sometimes quite surprised by how little hardware there actually is,” explained O’Brien of the mine-side eLTE deployment, which only involves a single tower and four portable cell trailers. “That has significantly reduced the number of technical problems we face, and when we do encounter the occasional inevitable issue, Huawei has been able to resolve it incredibly quickly on every occasion. It’s really what you might call a set-and-forget solution.”
That level of consistency has given CPM the freedom to explore a range of new use cases for its eLTE network, ranging from autonomous drilling and Internet of Things (IoT) deployments at its mine-side operations, to mission critical voice-over-LTE and even CCTV-over-LTE options for managing its pit-to-port supply chain. CPM already runs high-performance database and communications services, including VoIP and videoconferencing between ships and the mainland, on the LTE network.
“Huawei’s eLTE has stood the test of our bandwidth-intensive applications with commendable form, even as we’ve started experimenting with IoT applications, applying third-party sensors to both vehicles and other heavy machinery with positive results” commented O’Brien.
Today, Huawei infrastructure forms the invisible support layer to CPM’s operations in the Pilbara, backed up by a proven record of high-care service when any issues arise. “You know a data center is doing well when you don’t even remember it exists — and Huawei’s performance has been seamless enough that we often just forget it’s there,” O’Brien noted. “Huawei’s support has given us the headroom to focus on breaking new ground, both literally and on the digital frontier.”