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The superfast network is powering a smart port that’s fully prepared for the connected future

Belfast Harbour is the gateway to opportunity in Northern Ireland, handling over 24.6m tonnes of cargo and 1.6m passengers in 2019. It plays a dual role as both critical infrastructure, and as the engine that keeps the local economy roaring.

But it wasn’t always this way. Over the centuries, the port has grown to the impressive position it now finds itself in by embracing innovation. Since the 19th century, it has adapted to accommodate steamships and ocean liners. And it was then transformed by the container shipping revolution of the 1970s.

Today, the spirit of innovation continues. We’re working with the Harbour to transform itself once again into a ‘smart port’ that takes full advantage of new connected technologies. So it can charge full steam ahead into the connected future.

“Every business wants to find new ways to work more productively and to meet the needs of a changing world,” explains Port Director Michael Robinson. “And we know that 5G is an opportunity that no business can afford to miss.”

The promise of 5G

Today, our 5G connectivity, powered using EE’s network, is at the heart of Belfast Harbour’s operations. Working together, we’re helping Belfast Harbour achieve its ambition to become the world’s best regional smart port.

“A port is a live environment, where containers, trucks and cranes are in motion around the clock, so being able to access the crucial documents and systems that we need while mobile is absolutely essential,” explains Port Director Michael Robinson. “Thanks to EE’s 5G network, we can be confident that wherever we are on-site, we’re just a few taps away from whatever information we may require.”

The next-generation offers many improvements over 4G. Connections are more reliable, as 5G can handle many more connected devices. It's faster so staff can use it to download even the most detailed customs manifests. And latency, that’s the time taken for a signal to travel between a cell tower and a connected device, is much lower. Making live video feeds and real-time data collection possible across the Harbour.

Another advantage of 5G is that it is helping Belfast Harbour meet its strategic goal of becoming a ‘green’ port by 2035. The network allows connected sensors and other IoT devices to accurately measure air quality and more. Meaning the Harbour can instantly monitor its environmental impact at all times.

And the 5G rollout isn’t just improving the port. Belfast Harbour’s estate also contains office and residential areas. All of which can take advantage of the new connectivity. So 5G is also helping supercharge the Belfast economy across different sectors, ranging from healthcare to retail to tourism. Giving businesses more resilient connections, and new ways to connect with customers.

Connecting with experts

But 5G isn’t just an end in itself. It’s laying the foundations for a wider range of emerging technologies that can further transform the way business is done.

This includes augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). VR has become a key tool for Belfast Harbour when meeting clients and other stakeholders. Headsets let the Harbour demonstrate what they can do with immersive, 360-degree views of the port in action, without requiring an actual site visit.

And on the ground, AR is perhaps even more important. It’s now a crucial tool used by maintenance crews to keep the port moving.

“Keeping every asset in working order is absolutely vital to our business,” explains Hubert Scott, the Port’s Operations Engineering Manager. “This is extra challenging when dealing with specialist equipment. But thanks to a simple pair of AR glasses, we can connect our boots on the ground to the technical experts we need, wherever they are in the world. This means that repairs are faster, and disruption is minimised.”

The way it works is that engineers on the ground wear a headset that superimposes information on the world in front of them. This means that when a piece of equipment is being fixed, without having to look away they can see instructions on how to fix it. And if they get really stuck? The headset uses 5G to stream a live feed of exactly what the engineer is seeing directly to a remote expert who can guide the ground crew and offer advice.

What’s also exciting is that these innovations aren’t just limited to port operations. Our best in class 5G coverage across the Harbour’s estate could also help heal a major digital divide. Working with pollster YouGov, we discovered that small businesses significantly lag the largest firms in terms of taking advantage of a range of emerging technologies .

But with a rock-solid, 5G backbone, SMEs have a huge opportunity to take that leap towards the future. Whether it is using Voice Over IP  to stay connected with each other, IoT sensors to monitor equipment, or Cloud to allow staff to work from the places that are most convenient for them, 5G unlocks countless new ways to work more effectively.

Keeping critical networks secure

Last year, Belfast Harbour became the home to the first private 5G network in the UK and on the island of Ireland. Unlike the 5G network that our phones connect to, the port network operates completely independently. And this carries with it lots of advantages.

First, the private network makes connections even more reliable.

Every user in a given area shares the mainstream 5G network. So a smart crane will utilise the same radio capacity as everything from emails to a funny cat video that everyone is reposting.

For many use-cases, this isn’t a problem. But for a port where every manoeuvre is a carefully choreographed ballet, and where a single slip could pose a safety problem, reliability really matters. A dedicated private network provides uncontended capacity for the customer, meaning port operators can be confident that the real-time video feed from the smart crane’s onboard camera will work flawlessly every time.

The second benefit of the private network is security. Again, though the regular 5G network is fully secure (and offers many security improvements compared to 4G), the private network is completely separated from the regular 5G network. This provides an extra layer of protection for what is ultimately important national infrastructure.

These added protections aren’t just useful for existing systems. They’ll also be essential for any business involved in industry or logistics in the future.

“Ports are increasingly automated places. Soon it will not be unusual to see self-driving lorries collecting containers from cranes that don’t need a human operator,” explains Scott. “But the only way this future will arrive is if we can be confident in the system. A private 5G network is exactly what we need to improve our physical security, the safety of our operations and our sustainability too.”

Belfast Harbour is now well on its way to becoming a fully functioning smart port. Whatever technologies come along next, with a reliable, 5G foundation, the business is prepared for the future.

“5G isn’t just about doing things the same way faster,” says Robinson. “It is an opportunity to fundamentally transform every business process to achieve greater efficiency and more flexibility than ever.”