Private Cellular Networks for the Upstream Oil & Gas Industries: An Operations and Security Checklist

Private Cellular Networks for the Upstream Oil & Gas Industries: An Operations and Security Checklist

Alon Bar
By Alon Bar, Director of Product Marketing

Private Cellular Networks for the Upstream Oil & Gas Industries: An Operations and Security Checklist

As the world’s private consumers come to expect 5G connectivity, industrial consumers are not far behind. Low-latency and high-bandwidth, dependable and flexible, LTE/5G cellular networks promise to make large-scale industrial IoT applications an achievable reality.

The upstream oil and gas industry is among those poised to benefit from private LTE/5G cellular networks and their applications. Digital applications that require advanced connectivity have been problematic for offshore installations to implement. The complex structure of offshore rigs requires extensive and expensive cable installation, or accepting the Wi-Fi black spots that are inevitable in an all-steel and/or concrete structure.

Private LTE/5G cellular networks are changing that reality and enabling IoT and advanced digital applications, even offshore. A recent survey by the Oil & Gas Journal found that about 35% of respondents were using private cellular networks (PCN) for their OT and/or IT reliable data exchange.

One of the benefits of implementing LTE/5G cellular networks and their applications is a substantial reduction in operational costs. Relevant applications include:

● Using advanced analytics driven by real-time sensor data to increase drilling operation speed, efficiency, safety, and overall productivity.
● Remote and/or semi-automatic drilling would drastically reduce the number of workers needed on a rig.
● Using real-time, high-volume equipment status data for live asset integrity monitoring and prediction-based smart maintenance.
● Monitoring energy production and use, thus improving fuel consumption while helping decarbonization and sustainability efforts.
● Connectivity solutions ranging from digitized reporting to livestreaming and augmented reality tools that allow onsite workers to connect with onshore experts.
● Performance of platform and equipment surveillance and inspections by drones, robotics, or other automated technologies.
● Transparent upstream-to-downstream supply chain management.

Leveraging connectivity tech for these use cases by offshore operators, in particular, can reduce operating costs by 30-40%!

But if a private LTE/5G cellular network is not properly set up, forget any benefits. Careful planning and implementation are key.

Bearing in mind challenges that are likely to crop up and finding ways to solve or mitigate them in advance will give your oil or gas company the best chance at being one of those who sees a significant cost reduction per barrel of oil or equivalent.

From our experience working with private cellular networks and players in the energy industry, we have compiled a checklist of critical operational and security issues for which you should make sure your network implementation has a solution.

How will you track devices that switch networks?

Devices need to be consistently tracked across any network they are connected to (e.g. private cellular, failover to public cellular, Wi-Fi transitions, and others). This is especially important when you have a connected workforce, as is true in modern oil and gas operations. Effective IoT asset management should provide real-time visibility and insights into these network transitions, as well as consistently enforcing and maintaining security policies on the devices, irrespective of which network they are connected to.

How will you prevent SIM swapping (or other IoT device tampering)?

Geographically dispersed assets are common in the upstream sector of the oil and gas industries, posing the constant challenge of securing them against SIM swapping or other methods of tampering with the physical devices. To protect your assets and your organization, your private cellular network implementation should include the ability to lock devices with location-based connectivity policies, track assets’ geographic location and define responses to policy deviations.

How will you effectively manage the unprecedented scale of devices?

Private cellular networks can support thousands or tens of thousands of devices and are often called to do so in both upstream and downstream settings which use many IoT devices. To effectively manage a network at this scale, automation is key when it comes to creating device groups based on shared criteria and applying operations and security policies. You also need, simultaneously, the ability to hone in on specific devices.

How will you secure your vulnerable legacy or other non-cellular ready devices?

Due to the lack of cellular-equipped IoT devices, many of these devices connect via Ethernet, USB dongle, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or hot spots to cellular routers, which then connect them to private cellular networks. These industrial devices are often weak links in your network, vulnerable to ransomware or other security issues, and yet they are not naturally “visible” to your network. To ensure the security of your network and operations, you must have a way to track the individual non-cellular assets behind your cellular routers and set and enforce Zero Trust, segmentation, and other security policies for them.

How will you assess and optimize the operational efficiency of your network?

To fulfill the promise of increased productivity and profits, your network needs to be operating as efficiently as possible. Key in this optimization process are tools that can show you the full picture of device connectivity, performance, and quality of service. Those are invaluable, both in assessing the network as a whole and in comparing and evaluating the relative efficiency of different IoT devices.

How will you track down the source of security incidents and operational issues?

In the oil and gas industries, downtime is equivalent to losing money. Each day of unplanned downtime can cost $1.4 million. In order to keep downtime caused by suspected security breaches or operational problems to an absolute minimum, it’s critical to have network asset management tools that can go from network-level birds-eye view to device-level granularity as quickly as possible, with all the operational details necessary to pinpoint issues and quickly remediate them.

How will you integrate your cellular assets into your existing security and asset management systems?

When systems talk past each other, threats can slip past them. Cellular networks use different topography and protocols than the traditional IT/OT systems and networks used by offshore installations, refineries, and other facilities. To avoid blind spots that could have huge detrimental effects on your security and operations, you must have a solution for big-picture network visibility and system communication.

How will you efficiently onboard new devices?

Onboarding a new device to your private cellular network is a process that requires SIM provisioning, registering the asset in your CMDB (configuration management database), connecting it to your Mobile Device Management system, setting policies on it via your SIEM (security information and event management) platform… Are you still there? Because if not done properly, by the time you actually deploy your new device, it could be months later. (No joke; that was the timetable for one of our clients before they started using OneLayer.)

To make sure your new devices are not outdated before they are ever deployed, you should have a centralized place to orchestrate and automate the actions of various parts of your private cellular ecosystem. And when it comes to setting policies, the more you can automate device detection, identification, and subsequent policy setting, the better.

Prepare for the Power

Private cellular networks are poised to power the advancement of all sectors of the oil and gas industries, in everything from worker safety to operational efficiency to profitability. Come into your deployment informed and prepared, and you will be able to tap the energy of private cellular networks.

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