Hub Blog


4 key learnings to accelerate your transition to 5G

Compared with other nations, the UK has taken an early lead when it comes to adoption of 5G and this is in part thanks to ongoing support on offer from organisations like Digital Catapult and our typically very ‘pro technology’ government. It’s why some US telcos are securing their first 5G in maritime project here in the UK, but have yet to complete an implementation on home ground. US ports simply haven’t shown the same levels of interest in securing their digital futures as yet, compared to here in the UK.

Attitudes to early technology adoption are not the only drivers. The UK is unique in having a tripartite of influences which have arisen as a direct result of: 1) Covid - the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation in all sectors; 2) Brexit – leaving the EU has reaffirmed how important ports and maritime industries are to our economy; 3) Net Zero – the US has only recently renewed its focus on decarbonisation as a result of the new Biden administration.  Ultimately, whatever the reasons for our higher current engagement, 5G is clearly where the future for maritime lies. When it comes to rolling out this technology in UK ports, the decision to invest should be less about the ‘if’ or ‘why’ and more about the ‘when’ and ‘how’.  The Port of Tyne has carefully evaluated the benefits of 5G and by applying our insights, other ports in the UK could accelerate their own progress, taking advantage of the learning curve already experienced at the Port of Tyne.

Why is 5G so important for maritime?

Ports currently have two major challenges - digitalisation and decarbonisation. When it comes to digitalisation, the argument is very clear cut. It is not possible to ‘go digital’ without a 5G network, because digitalisation involves collecting data. Ultimately, you can have the best algorithms and software analytics, but without the right data at the right time for decision making, progress is impossible. 5G is the only technology that is currently available and able to deliver data in a secure and ubiquitous way - it is effectively a deal breaker for Ports to be able to achieve their future objectives.

So far, a handful of ports in the UK, the Port of Tyne being one of them, have already begun the transition to 5G. It’s expensive, but we have pressed ahead because the investment is essential to achieving our Smart Port vision. It is also central to our net zero agenda and the model we are adopting can potentially serve as a blueprint for all the UK’s ports still considering their options. Here are four top tips to help kick start your 5G projects.

Explore creative funding options

Probably the biggest ‘con’ when developing a 5G business case is the cost. Compared to a secure Wi Fi network, the cost is significantly higher – it is a new technology - but this gap will reduce massively as the adoption cycle matures.

A myriad of ways to finance 5G projects exist, it is not simply a matter of securing the capex needed, although this is an option too. 5G is extremely versatile and there are hundreds of implementation options and levels of pricing available. These range from really very cheap and funded through opex, to very expensive capex investments. When considering the funding it is important to have evaluated what is required immediately and then consider what the requirements will be in 2 years and longer term, in 10 years.

Telcos offer a range of schemes, ranging from a pure ‘rental’ model with no ownership considerations and no up-front capital needed, to hybrid approaches combining a mix of capex and subscription routes. For example, some providers are willing to install 5G kit, but they remain the owners and will simply charge the port a monthly subscription. This is the lowest cost entry point to obtain a private 5G network and once installed, it can be monetised to customers to recoup the costs involved.

Invest in future skills

Perhaps even more of an issue than the cost of 5G is having the resources required for ongoing management. Frequently the challenge of upskilling is the main reason why organisations push back and delay their 5G projects. A clear future skills strategy to acquire the relevant capabilities is an imperative, this could be through upskilling existing employees to work with mobile and cellular technologies or external recruitment drives. It is possible to outsource the ongoing management, but a certain level of understanding is still necessary. Imagine a scenario where a quay crane is remotely manned and a user is informed that they have lost the connection. The team on the ground needs to appreciate the impacts and know what action to take.

Go for quick wins to provide learning opportunities

Most ports are using a lot of legacy analogue assets, which will require conversion to be 5G compatible and able to benefit from mobile data capture. It is not possible to retrofit everything, some understanding of the priority assets is needed. This involves ports working hand in hand with manufacturers to use their expertise to find ways to integrate legacy assets.

The Port of Tyne has created a matrix inventory of all assets and outlined the pros and cons of digital integration. Clearly some assets will generate higher returns, but the process to get there is more complex – the biggest gains generate the biggest pains. So rather than beginning with the most challenging ones, it is better to start small with a broad mix of risk profiles. Less complex conversion projects provide an opportunity to make quick wins and offer ways to get the team playing with 5G and learning for larger, future projects.

Transfer knowledge from outside maritime

It is possible for ports to learn from best practice approaches taken in other industries - especially in advanced manufacturing. In the UK, automotive has been an early adopter and offers plenty of scope for knowledge transfer. Germany is a strong manufacturing nation with many vertical specialisms beyond automotive. They have developed a very strong knowledge base with an excellent group of engineers and technologists working in 5G for the manufacturing sector. Enlist help from partnering organisations like Digital Catapult and local universities, to help facilitate a knowledge transfer.

After reading this, our hope is that your opinion of 5G – its potential and viability for your port has changed. 5G is here now and ports should be investing, developing roadmaps and thinking about their future skills.

Authors: Claire Caminade, Head of 5G Product and Partnerships at Digital Catapult and Ian Blake, Head of Innovation and Technology at the Port of Tyne.

Learn more about accelerating the transition to 5G at your Port by attending the 2050 Maritime Innovation Hub’s Maritime Innovation Week, 13-16 June 2022. Click here to secure your place at this unique and free industry event.