Public or private connectivity for ports?

Regular readers of this blog will have heard about the Port of Hamburg’s 5G pilot, supported by Deutsche Telekom, Nokia and, of course, Real Wireless.

It’s an early example of the opportunities ports are seeing to improve their operations, using wireless technologies to enhance the connectivity required to underpin smart systems. The focus on wireless is hardly surprising. Ports like Hamburg are complex and sprawling enough, without the costs and disruption that would come from installing fibre optic cable across an area of many square kilometres.

The particularities of ports – where container vessels, cruise ships, trucks, rail tracks, cranes and control rooms are all part of a big, multifaceted operation – create connectivity demands that wireless is especially well placed to meet. However, as we have discussed elsewhere, these are demands that will require new network architectures that can deliver ultra-low latency, improved coverage, plus scalable cloud solutions using technologies optimised for edge computing. 

Until you visit a port, it’s difficult to appreciate the scale of operations and challenges. Major ports are like good sized towns. Quite apart from the port authority itself, the Port of Hamburg supports the operation (either directly, or indirectly) of more than 30,000 companies employing more than 135,000 people. In 2018, some 16,000 were engaged in retailing, and around 13,000 in wholesale and foreign trade.

Across the port as a whole, ubiquitous mobile coverage is essential for everyday communications, while specific businesses and operations may require particular types of applications, services, security and performance.

In addition, the people who work and conduct business in a port recognise that operations are not constrained by the site itself, but extend into the city (in the case of Hamburg) and out into the hinterland beyond it. In this context, it’s not a question of solving the issue of connectivity for the Port of Hamburg, but of addressing multiple challenges for multiple stakeholders across a range of use cases and interdependences over a large geographic area.

Once again, it’s difficult to overstate the complexity. This is about future-proofing communications infrastructure to control and track multi-modal transport systems in an industrial setting. For example, managing the interdependencies between sea transportation, road & rail haulage in an operation that today handles close to 9 million containers a year and aims to increase that to more than 18 million by 2030.

In the wireless industry, there’s growing recognition that private networks could have significant appeal to particular types of enterprise. However, a private network to address connectivity for the Port of Hamburg as a whole makes no more sense than creating a one for a town. The site is too big, stakeholder requirements too diverse and the solution too expensive. Instead, our work in Hamburg makes a strong technical and economic case for tackling many of this particular port’s requirements through smart use of a public 5G network. This is where network slicing techniques come into play, allowing the port to make use of public networks but operating in service level defined slices.

This is not to suggest that private networks have no role to play in addressing some of the requirements associated with the development of a smart port. Sections of a large port, like a privately-owned terminal, could benefit from their own private networks, as could much smaller ports, with all that implies in terms of highly focused, reliable communications and highly localised, controllable and independent data throughput, in a very small but very important area.

Private networks owned by discrete operators in a port are already possible. Systems and services already exist that bring small-scale wireless connectivity to businesses in a number of ports, allowing, for example, users of ruggedised tablets, smartphones and two-way radio to communicate and send data to other, specified users in a defined area. By contrast, a port-wide 5G network supplied on a network slicing basis is further off but, as we have indicated in our work for Port of Hamburg, may eventually provide the most efficient wireless solution, delivering operational efficiencies and economic ROI.

Ports are an industrial sector with which Real Wireless will continue to engage with and support. Our work with international stadia like Wembley and Tottenham has given us deep understanding of how to deploy multiple technologies to address communications challenges to deliver robust connectivity to large and complex public sites and the areas that surround them. Our 5G techno-economic work in Hamburg has given us unique skills and insights that we look forward to applying to the development of smart ports around the world.

Check out our Resources for Port Authorities