Ambra Solutions is deep into private LTE. Really deep. As much as three kilometers deep, in fact, to provide wireless connectivity for a Canadian gold mine.
The private LTE network on 850 MHz spectrum at the Agnico Eagle LaRonde site in Quebec province is just one of the mission-critical private LTE networks that the company has designed and deployed. CEO Eric L’Heureux said that his company has designed and built networks for mining, oil and gas, and utility customers who come to Ambra with needs that can’t be met by commercial carriers.
“It’s not [commercial carriers]business to do those kind of networks,” L’Heureux said.
Ambra owns spectrum in multiple bands in order to support the private LTE networks that it builds, and makes arrangements with other spectrum holders in areas outside its footprint. The company builds private LTE networks with equipment from multiple manufacturers, L’Heureux said, including Ericsson (such as its deployment at the Agnico Eagle gold mine in LaRonde), Nokia and Huawei.
L’Heureux said that while Ambra relied on mesh technology using unlicensed spectrum in its early years, that approach had its challenges. Even at remote sites, he said, “it’s almost impossible to find a clean channel that’s not being used” and the use of unlicensed spectrum meant that establishing end-to-end quality of service wasn’t possible. So about four years ago, Ambra began shifting to private LTE as its technology of choice for mission-critical, hardened enterprise networks.
“LTE enables them to have data, push-to-talk, IoT, voice, everything on a single infrastructure,” L’Heureux said, adding that Ambra can deploy a private LTE network for about half the cost of Wi-Fi. In the case of the Agnico Eagle site, he has said that a single active LTE radio can cover up to 6 kilometers of tunnel, while it would take more than 60 active Wi-Fi access points to cover the same area.
The most common challenge his customers face, he said, is that once they have their private LTE networks, they are faced with a flood of requests and options for real-time monitoring, IoT sensors and other things that can be connected to their new networks.
“There are so many options that are possible with LTE,” he said.
L’Heureux said that Ambra will often bring a cell-on-wheels to its customers to let them get a taste of the technology and also to measure performance in order to design the network. LTE’s handover capabilities make transferring information between below-ground and above-ground sites seamless. Ambra installs a core at each location and can take advantage of whatever LTE features have been standardized in various releases, he noted — not just the ones that commercial carriers have decided to implement in networks that are built for consumer traffic.
“The challenge,” he said, “is having ruggedized devices. It’s easy to find devices and we’re using bands that are really common.” Ambra, he added, uses a mix of commercially available devices but also created some Cat M1 sensors that use an eSIM chip instead of a SIM card. However, L’Heureux noted, the large LTE ecosystem means that various device and equipment types can be mixed and matched and still achieve interoperability — and that’s something new for mission-critical communications, which have historically been much more locked into single-vendor systems.
Much of Ambra’s work, he said, is around integration. The way it connects LTE at each location is unique and it builds highly redundant systems — “everything is redundant,” in fact, according to L’Heureux: dual cores, dual Radio Access Networks, dual backhaul and at least eight hours of battery back-up, if not more. That is both because of the customer needs for high reliability as well as the difficulty of reaching sites for service, he said.
“This is mission-critical traffic. We have to be proactive, and all the systems that we’re deploying are all high-reliability,” he said, adding, “This is remotely located. We don’t want to go there for troubleshooting or if there is a failure.”