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Connecting from the tundra

Communications close in on remote mining camps

Jennifer McPhee
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Dec 17/01) - In 1976, satellite communications were new to the North and Tom Hoefer was working at Nanisivik mine located on Baffin Island.

Back them, phone conversations resembled talking in a tunnel. There was a significant time delay.

"It was almost like using two tin cans and a string compared to the technology today," said Hoefer, who is now manager of public and government affairs for Diavik Diamond Mines.

Employees also lined up to use pay phones.

"You really had to get in line early if you wanted to call home," he said laughing.

Not anymore. When Diavik mine opens in 2003, the camp, which is located about 350 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, will have a direct Internet connection, up to 35 phone lines and about 500 phones on site.

The telephones in dormitories and offices operate via a two-way satellite system, purchased from Vancouver Teleport at a cost of several million dollars.

Hoefer said Diavik choose the Vancouver-based company because it offers a feature that allows Diavik to route telephones through the Internet.

This takes up less bandwidth on a satellite and lowers costs.

"It will take up about a quarter of the bandwidth you would use on a regular phone," said Hoefer.

For now, Diavik won't use cellular phones. "That's an expensive option," said Hoefer.

Ken Douglas, NWT assistant vice-president of sales for Northwestel, said the number of phone lines a remote camp can have is almost unlimited.

"There are limits on the service, but a mining camp isn't going to max out on any of limits of a satellite service," he said.

Hoefer says Diavik uses other kinds of communication methods in the processing plant.

In the past, a large team of people constantly fine-tuned the processing machinery. These days, a large computer network works as "the brain of the processing plant."

An operator can sit before a number of TV monitors that are measuring what is happening and making adjustments.

"As a result you see less people working in processing plants," said Hoefer. "You don't have to make manual adjustments, the computer does that for you."

This data is transmitted through other links to the mine manager's desktop.

"He can look over the operators shoulder electronically," says Hoefer.