Eric L’Heureux, Founder & CEO
Every year, mining companies hire field workers by the hundreds, and as part of their job description, these people must spend long periods underground, away from their families, with limited to no means of contact. Why? The traditional communication systems within underground mines and structurally complex open-pit mines are mere patchworks of different networks, each supporting individual apps that essentially use up all the available non-licensed frequencies and channels. Paradoxically, these costly and complex systems offer grossly inadequate coverage. These communication systems lack efficiency and robustness, creating operational and communicational challenges for both miners and mining companies.
To address these challenges, Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd., a Canadian gold mining company has reached out to Quebec-based telecommunications company, Ambra Solutions, who delivered Canada’s deepest underground 5G LTE network. The 850MHz LTE network solution, located three kilometers below the surface, provides data and voice mobility services across the site. It enables several IoT use cases that, among other things, can greatly improve safety in mining operations. Eric L’Heureux, founder and CEO, Ambra Solutions, recalls a field worker’s response to the deepest LTE installation at LaRonde, “After the system had been deployed at Agnico Eagle, a miner told me ‘thanks to your system my pregnant wife can rest assured that if she goes into labor, my boss can get a hold of me anywhere in the mine, anytime!’”
LTE networks open new opportunities for cost-effective smart mining. The networks allow IoT sensors and devices to monitor, operate, and collect data across the mining site and provide real-time coverage for several kilometers of underground tunnels. Additionally, a single LTE radio can cover up to 6 km of a tunnel, whereas it takes over 60 active Wi-Fi access points to cover the same area. One of the main hurdles in LTE implementation is country-specific LTE regulations.
In order to face these challenges, Ambra Solutions partners with key multinational mobile network operators from specific countries. They source their equipment from multiple manufacturers, including Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei, for building private LTE networks for their clients. Currently, Ambra Solutions owns spectrum in multiple bands in order to support the private LTE networks that they build. In the event that they are outside of their footprint, they create partnerships with other spectrum holders. In parallel to this effort, their innovative R&D team works to build instruments that are designed to adapt to the harsh environment of mining. These large and private LTE ecosystems require interoperability of various devices and equipment types, for which, Ambra Solutions maintains a dedicated spectrum. All mission-critical communications, such as day-to-day operations, management, and assistance to miners and operators can use a dedicated network (PLMN). Meanwhile, the non-mission-critical communications use an entirely different public land mobile network (PLMN) connected to a local public operator. Furthermore, the mission-critical traffic uses enhanced secured SIM cards made possible by a formal association with Ecotel, a Canadian cellular operator registered with the ITU and the GSMA.
Working on new projects in the U.S., Mexico, South America, South Africa, and Europe, L’Heureux says, “It is our flexibility that allows us to meet the specific and growing needs of our customers and offer IoT and 5G solutions accordingly,” crediting this very flexibility of Ambra Solutions’ products for its global recognition. This unique differentiator paves the way for mining companies to operate and manage their own LTE networks. “Each issue is seen as a challenge, and a personalized solution will be proposed to reach the best levels of communication. Our R&D team can design a product that is perfectly adapted to a specific request. In addition, Ambra Solutions is involved in several development projects with the goal of creating an ecosystem around LTE technology,” L’Heureux concludes.