Telkomsel Pioneers 5G Smart Mining in South-East Asia

Observing the evolving market for 5G private mobile networks, I’m always keen to see examples of how the technology is being deployed and used, particularly in challenging environments. Such examples demonstrate not only the concept of private mobile networks, but also the power of 5G in a more general sense, because they support high-performance demands of capacity, latency and reliability. Arguably, these deployments are where the advanced capabilities of 5G are being fully realized.

One example that was recently shared with me is the PT Freeport smart mining project in Indonesia. Mobile operator Telkomsel has deployed a standalone 5G private network underground, supporting several sophisticated use cases specific to this industry.

The work is part of the country’s government-backed Digital Indonesia framework. It’s the first 5G smart mining project in south-east Asia and the first industrial 5G private network in Indonesia, located in the mineral-rich district of Grasberg in the Papua region. It’s also the first standalone 5G network validation by Telkomsel. The project was officially opened by the president of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, and in his address he heralded Telkomsel for its acceleration of the mine’s digital transformation, incubation of new technology-driven skills, as well as provision of safer conditions for mine workers.

Of course, underground excavation is extremely hazardous, so safety measures and the ability to perform timely rescue operations are paramount. Communication is a vital ingredient of safety, but mine systems often feature multiple tunnels several kilometres in length, making communications problematic. Fixed-line communication is achievable, but lacks the mobility needed by workers, vehicles and equipment on the move, and walkie-talkie systems lack data functionality. Wi-Fi is an option, but limited for applications requiring mobility; Wi-Fi’s bandwidth and uplink rates may be insufficient for applications such as video; the technology can’t support multiple devices simultaneously demanding high bandwidth for applications such as underground remote monitoring.

Without a reliable high-speed communication network underground, the development of intelligent mining operations is severely restricted. A data command centre at ground level cannot receive real-time video feeds for monitoring in excavation tunnels, so vehicle scheduling and operation must rely on older communication processes and tools. Not only does this create information silos — data from one operational function doesn’t connect with other functions — but more critically, it’s a potential safety hazard.

This is where a 5G private mobile network comes in, with its high capacity, high availability and resilience, wide coverage and seamless switching for multiple devices. Having a single unified communication system based on a single network also improves the efficiency of data cross-referencing, making for a more collaborative and functional work environment.

But as you can imagine, it’s not easy to deliver any sort of consistent mobile network coverage underground, where radio signal propagation is challenging. And given the safety-orientated applications it’s supporting, having robust connectivity is fundamental.

Coverage is enabled by an extensive 5G small cell network throughout the underground facility. The system has integrated remote radio units and antenna panels, local servers and data centres, and an on-premises 5G core handles switching and supports virtual LANs and other features.

Telkomsel’s end-to-end campus network for the mine comprises the following elements from network solutions provider ZTE:

  • 5G base stations deployed 1.5 km deep in three underground mine tunnels, including ZTE’s Pad remote radio units with integrated antennas, supporting standalone 5G at 1800 MHz and 2100 MHz.
  • Ground base stations, providing 5G public network access in non-operational public areas of the mining campus.
  • ZTE’s Common Core series of core networks supporting LTE and 5G networks, deployed at ground level, connecting the network management system and the intelligent mining server. They aim to provide ultrahigh reliability at container, virtual machine and node level; the core network system is equipped with backup servers, storage and emergency power supplies.
  • An intelligent, unified network management system, providing data security across the system.
  • 5G customer-premises equipment for the mining vehicles.

The private mobile network is designed so that the 5G customer-premises equipment connects to the underground 5G remote radio units, which are backhauled through the mine to the baseband unit on dark fibre; traffic is then switched to the network management system and core network, delivering end-to-end network transmission.

As well as support for the more regular type of enterprise voice and video applications, one of the primary uses for the private network is remotely controlling mining operations. This requires ultralow latency, real-time high-definition video monitoring and mobile connectivity to vehicles. To enable this, industrial-grade 5G kit is installed in the mining equipment, with antennas connected outside the vehicle. A 5G SIM card sets a dedicated network access port through the core network’s class access function, with each mining vehicle connected through dedicated IP gateways.

The equipment is fitted with cameras to provide a view of the drill surface on remote monitors and enable accurate control of the heavy machinery. In a second application of the technology, each tunnel has a laser gate that detects any human presence in the drill tunnel and automatically shuts the drilling equipment down if people are present. Obviously, the drilling equipment is mobile, so mobility is important, and for the remote video and safety sensor functions, low latency is critical — the PT Freeport private network supports end-to-end latency of about 10 milliseconds, as well as stable, high performance of the uplink connectivity.

The network can also support advanced functions such as network slicing and online billing. Private mobile network deployments offer a developmental road map, and in the PT Freeport example, the network enables the exploration of other possible applications in the mining field. It’s already improved mine production efficiency, with claims of a 25% rise in productivity, cost savings of 40%, and a 20% reduction in energy use. These are impressive illustrations of the digital transformation offered by standalone 5G. But most importantly, the safety of underground mining operations is greatly improved — and no price can be placed on that.