Recent international events, from pandemic supply chain disruption to Brexit, have highlighted the challenges of keeping major ports running during uncertain times. The complexity of these environments is mind-boggling, with the need to handle millions of items a month, while adjusting processes constantly to changes in rules, shipping schedules or weather conditions.
The vast number of data points involved in a single day of port operations is daunting enough, before we even consider that these originate from hundreds of different traders and stakeholders, and must be updated dynamically to hundreds more, in ever-changing combinations, as different ships, vehicles, containers and boxes come and go.
All this makes a large port an almost ideal case study for the benefits of a high quality cellular network, which can feed advanced data analytics processes, handling millions of data updates in near-real time. However, the requirements go beyond just a 4G or even 5G network. To ensure that level of accuracy and responsiveness, and so avoid delays or hiccups in the trading process, that network will need to be tuned to the specific needs of the port processes, and integrated with its data and operational systems.
All this makes it clear why ports have taken a starring role in Small Cell Forum’s major activities centred on the business case for private cellular networks. The challenges and requirements that a port places on a network are shared by many other sectors, but they are particularly demanding. Understanding the business case for a private network for a large port, then, sheds very valuable light on the benefits and use cases for other environments too.
This is why SCF undertook a major project to engage with about a dozen ports around the EMEA region, to understand how private cellular fitted into their digital journeys. This was part of a broader initiative to understand in detail the real world timescales and requirements of different industries where private cellular networks may help support business transformation. The work follows on from last year’s study of the private networks market (SCF235), which identified many benefits for the service provider’s business model, and discovered significant pent-up demand for such capabilities.
In that study, it became clear that this was not a market waiting for a future time when 5G is ubiquitous, but rather an opportunity that already exists, with many industries keen to improve their communications and processes with superior connectivity that they control. Many, including some ports, have already started with 4G and will then migrate towards 5G, layering on more applications as they do so.
As they gradually expand their networks, they will be able to support more complex processes and advanced analytics, and in doing so, the example of sophisticated environments such as ports will hold valuable lessons for many enterprises and their service providers.
SCF’s new paper provides a clear view of how ports are building up their cellular-enabled capabilities steadily as they enhance their networks, in partnership with service providers that understand their business. This will offer valuable insights for providers and enterprises in many other sectors too, and in future, SCF aims to engage with ports on an ongoing basis, to understand how their networks, and business benefits, are evolving; and the knock-on impact this will have on port tenants and other users. In time, SCF aims to expand the work to include detailed work with other verticals also.
This first report provides a clear and unique snapshot of port operators’ commercial challenges, and the objectives of their digital transformations, and how those can be met with the help of private cellular networks. Performance KPIs and commercial goals for the 4G or 5G networks are discussed, and of course, are very different for ports that are at different stages of digitalisation, or working in different locations.
That highlights one of the clearest advantages of using a private network – it can be entirely tailored to the individual enterprise. Even within a single sector such as ports, no two organizations will have the same requirements and timescales, and aligning connectivity closely to a company’s goals emerges as a significant motivator.
However, that benefit can also be a challenge to the scalability of the model – how attractive it is to service providers, and how accessible it is for smaller enterprises. SCF has a long history of driving common platforms that provide unified, massively scalable foundations on which hundreds of business-specific variations can be built. This is just as critical to the private networks model as any other aspect of the cellular industry.
A key goal of SCF’s broad-ranging work on private networks is to identify commonalities in the current and future requirements of a group of enterprises, and how those might be supported by common business models and platforms. That would reduce the need to reinvent the wheel at every port, reducing cost and time to market – while preserving the ability of the individual enterprise to tailor its private network entirely for its own processes and commercial goals.
With enterprise and private revenues set to be the primary area of growth for many service providers in the 5G era, it is urgent to address such questions now, starting in a 4G-centric world and providing strong migration paths to future platforms and business relationships. In driving such work, SCF aims to play a significant role in making private networks deployable and mission-critical, and there is no better place to test our ideas and learn real world lessons than in the demanding connectivity environment of the ports.