Connected tugboats promise 5G speeds for port of Antwerp

Connected tugboats promise 5G speeds for port of Antwerp

15 April 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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Orange is building a trial 5G network in the giant Belgian port of Antwerp, working with the port authority and a number of industrial corporations. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to Orange Belgium’s Werner De Laet.

Months ahead of the award of full-scale 5G licences in Belgium, Orange is already running services for a closed group in Antwerp, the second biggest port in Europe.

The company has built a trial 5G business-to-business (B2B) network for the Port of Antwerp, the organisation that runs the city’s maritime hub, spreading for 150 square kilometres on both sides of the estuary of the River Scheldt.

“We started this project because people were saying that 5G is the technology for B2B,” says Werner De Laet, chief enterprise officer for innovation and wholesale at Orange Belgium. “We didn’t want to just talk about it. We wanted to do it.”

It’s still a trial, not connected to Orange Belgium’s core network, but it is being created across the port, including in the tugs that guide container ships to and from their berths, and by other companies that work in the port.

“We did some earlier trials with private 4G technology,” says De Laet. But it didn’t work, “because of limitations on latency and throughput”, he notes. “We found there were a number of use cases that you could not apply. But the promise is there in 5G.”

Orange, once known as Mobistar, is Belgium’s member of the Paris-based Orange Group, and De Laet has developed the Antwerp project with group-level assistance.

Waiting for 5G spectrum

In the longer term, once the Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT), the regulator, starts to allocate 5G spectrum licences, Orange is planning to work in a joint venture with Proximus – formerly Belgacom – on the country’s public 5G. “But there aren’t any public 5G licences in Belgium yet,” says De Laet. “This is one of the first 5G stand- alone networks for corporate networks. We wanted to do this with industrial players.” The private network runs on specially licensed test spectrum in the 3,400-3,500MHz range, says De Laet, who has worked in Orange Belgium and in neighbouring Orange Luxembourg for 22 years, in senior roles, including CFO and CEO.

Industrial partners

The company calls the project its Orange Industry 4.0 Campus, and it’s working with not only the port authority but also with a chemical company, Borealis, and a polymer maker, Covestro. A logistics company, Katoen Natie, is also planning to join the project and Deloitte Belgium has a key role, advising companies and other organisations on the business potential.

Each of the company’s partners will share results and experiences, promises De Laet. There are “a lot of corporations” around the port, “and some are advanced in digital strategy, and 5G is one of the technologies they want to use”. The port authority and the industrial partners “are very demanding” about the 5G project. “It is unique in Europe,” he says.

The plan is to run the network from 14 base stations, of which seven had already been built when I spoke to De Laet in mid-February. “We’re planning full deployment by the end of March, but the core network is already running.”

Network slicing from ZTE

Orange is using the Chinese vendor, ZTE, to build the radio network and the core network, which uses network slicing, a technique that allows each partner’s traffic to be kept separate.

One of the seven base stations in service is a full-scale 64-antenna version, but the other six have just eight antennas, he notes. This is because 10 years ago Belgium imposed strict limits on exposure to electromagnetic fields, long before some activists’ more recent, and unproven, fears about 5G.

Fortunately, Flanders – the Dutch-speaking province of which Antwerp is the biggest city – has the least stringent limit, at 20.6V/m, but the limit on each antenna is 3V/m. In comparison, in Brussels, the national capital, the total limit is just 6V/m. Any liberalisation of emissions limits is in the hands of the regional government, notes De Laet.

Political radiation limit

The limits “are 10 times more severe” than those recommended by the World Health Organization, he adds. “It was a very political decision and the limits may mean 5G is not practical in Brussels,” he sighs.

ZTE “has experience of network slicing on 64-antenna base stations, but not before on eight antennas”, he adds.

Orange is seeking to implement network slicing more widely across the port network. “There are a lot of things that are new, because we’ve had to adapt to the Belgian environment.”

De Laet and his colleagues have identified a number of projects around the port, a range of real-life and business-critical applications that will be built and tested in an industrial environment, including connected tugboats. “The Port of Antwerp will use connected tugboats to direct ships in the area. We want to see how we can use 5G to connect to onshore applications,” he says.

At the moment there are 13 separate radio systems in use. “We want to see if we can overlay radio on the boats with the onshore systems, to create a more diverse picture.” Here the great advantage of 5G will be its low latency, he notes.

High-definition cameras

“All the boats will have high-definition cameras and we want to see if we can use them to detect irregularities, such as oil spillages. Can we get the information from the tugboats back to the shore?”

He doesn’t want to go into specifics, but network slicing will allow Orange to build a secure network layer. “We have chemical plants and one of the biggest needs is to alert people quickly. At the moment they use walkie-talkies. But with 5G we can warn people, tell them where to move to, and the system will allow us to move beyond the borders of one corporation with the alerts.”

Logistics will potentially be among the biggest use cases, he adds.

“It’s a bit soon to comment,” says De Laet, but Orange promises a report on progress by the middle of June.
The test licences run until November 2020, he adds. “Some things are moving on the regulatory side, so we might be able to continue after November.”

Separate core network

Part of this is bound up in the 5G joint venture that Orange is proposing with Proximus for Belgium. De Laet says the joint venture will choose the vendor
– “though that doesn’t exclude us from having a large private network” that is separate from the public network, he goes on to explain.

Orange Belgium runs the core network for the Antwerp project, fully separate from its existing core for its public network. “It’s hosted in Hoboken, right next to the port. That’s good for latency and local computing power. We have the edge capability; we have everything, the full 5G service.”

Some of the corporate customers will keep their data separate, he adds. “They don’t want to see their data leaving their premises. They want to distinguish between data for the network and data that’s in their site.”

Early measurements show that the 64-antenna base station is able to deliver data at 1.3Gbps, he says, with a seven milliseconds latency.

“Orange has funded the operation and it’s a non-commercial activity. Companies have had to invest their own resources in the project. But it’s been very easy to get companies to take part. They really want to test this technology,” says De Laet.

“We want to see what are the real needs of the B2B customers, what kind of experience people want.” Orange is providing 24-hour support, “a time to react that’s shorter than with a normal set-up. You have to adapt your service level.”

The question for Orange is: “Where is our place in this 5G world?” He repeats that the Belgian subsidiary is working closely with the Orange Group “and we have very close relations with the ZTE team on the technology”.

But “we are still in the early stages of the 5G industry”.