Transport Hubs: The Wholesale Opportunity
Large transport hubs - such as airports, ports and railway marshalling yards – will have increasing future roles as network infrastructure interchanges as well as physical ones. Companies or government bodies operating those locations will start to look like telcos – or may need to partner with them more closely.
While some facilities have long provided fixed-broadband connections to tenants, the future is likely to see more interest in mobile wholesale, both in terms of backhaul and neutral-host capabilities, especially as private cellular networks become more important.
An ever-richer variety of use-cases
Ports and airports are incredibly complex operations, with multiple IT and network systems, as well as supporting diverse specialist industrial systems, ranging from fuel bunkers to radar
They have challenging environmental constraints, with large moving objects (planes, trains, containers and ships), heavily-regulated safety and security, and significant amounts of below-ground or inaccessible infrastructure. They span numerous heavily-trafficked buildings with thousands of people and businesses, to large expanses of outdoor area, often concreted and with strict limits on adding new infrastructure.
However, they are also increasingly dependent on connectivity, for a bewildering array of existing and new use-cases, such as:
- Robotic and remote-controlled vehicles, such as tugs or light rail systems
- Freight-tracking, including details about pallets and containers
- Security cameras and sensors
- Lighting for runways, loading areas and local roadways
- In-building coverage (and huge capacity) for passengers and workers, all of whom expect both multi-network cellular and ubiquitous Wi-Fi availability
- Support of baggage-handling systems, with barcode-scanners
- Border and customs functions, including automated passport scanners with video analytics
- “Smart building” technology ensuring optimal use of ventilation, heating, lighting and safety sensors
- Sign-boards for passengers, staff, plane/ship crews etc
- Extensive national and international connectivity
- Edge-computing and exchanges
- Voice communications systems, now evolving from 2-way radios to cellular-based systems
- Maintenance systems for aircraft in hangars, or ships in docks – increasingly with high-definition video inspections, augmented reality for engineers, and strict requirements on documentation and record-keeping.
The connectivity requirements for these systems are continually evolving, but the general trend is towards fibre wherever possible (for static systems and deep within buildings) and fast/reliable wireless links for moving objects. 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi are all natural fits, as well as niche wireless technologies – and all will need ever more-dense networks of antennas and radio sites, especially as frequencies increase towards mmWave bands for higher capacity. Many of the use-cases require specialist systems integration and operational skills and experience, which can go beyond the remit of most normal telecoms providers.
A common theme for ports and airports is the sheer number of different organisations that go into their communications ecosystems. As well as their own internal connectivity requirements for employees and a growing range of IoT systems, the site-owners are also responsible for wired and wireless links for stakeholders such as:
- Transportation companies
- Airlines, both within the terminals and at hangars / warehouses and nearby offices.
- Shipping agents and freight forwarders
- Logistics and package-delivery firms
- Services providers
- National mobile network operators
- Retailers and other concessions
- Vehicle rental agencies
- Bus, rail, taxi & tour companies
- Fuel companies
- Security firms
- On-site hotels, warehouses and business parks
- Insurance and finance organisations
- Operations and public safety
- Police and firefighters
- Medical services
- Air / port traffic control
- Power and lighting providers
- Construction contractors
Obviously, most of these organisations will have their own network and communications preferences, and potentially infrastructure of their own. For example, some airports have entire separate terminals operated by freight/logistics firms. Numerous IT and systems providers are also involved, such as SITA, the airline industry IT body.
Nevertheless, they will generally all need to obtain connectivity and often additional managed services, whether that is for data communications or voice interconnection. Some such as mobile operators will have additional needs for in-building coverage, without being able to install their own infrastructure.
Hub-owners as telcos and wholesalers
Disruptive Analysis believes that port and airport authorities will increasingly act like telecom operators (or contract their connectivity needs to established providers). They will have a mix of B2B, B2C and wholesale customers – as well as needing to deal with the relevant regulatory authorities and new constituencies such as software and IoT developers.
Perhaps the closest parallels can be made between transport locations and smart cities, in terms of physical area (airports can be 10’s of square km in size), people employed in/nearby the facility, and numbers of tenants and businesses dependent on the facility. As with smart cities, we are starting to see different models of ownership / monetisation / operation of network assets emerge. There will be particular challenges around 5G deployment, where it may not be possible just to have cell-sites around the airport periphery, on rooftops or centrally-located for indoor distributed antennas.
In 2018, Australia’s Brisbane airport announced that it had installed 250km of fibre and was making gigabit access connections available to its many tenants. It also has its own data centre and Internet exchange facilities.
The largest airport worldwide, the recently-opened new Istanbul hub, has installed over 3000km of fibre, for both its own internal requirements and tenants’ needs. It is expected to support up to 9000 security cameras, 5000 Wi-Fi access points, and multiple 4G/5G cellular antennas and radios.
These types of model are likely to evolve further still, with both dark- and lit-fibre being needed by new tiers of intermediate service provider, such as neutral-host networks acting as a shared infrastructure layer. The addition of localised spectrum licenses suitable for 4G and 5G private networks is also likely to be a significant game-changer.
Small-cell deployments at ports and airports will need to contend with numerous additional challenges, such as how mmWave propagation deals with moving aircraft, ships, cranes and metal containers. Imagine the future challenges for creating a self-driving catering truck, surrounded by billions of dollars-worth of A380s and 787s, as well as tankers full of aviation fuel.
Taken together, all of this complexity points to a need for robust, secure and flexible network infrastructure, both in terms of fixed/fibre connectivity and mobile/wireless networks. It is certainly one of the highest priority domains for vendors and integrators looking at enterprise networks today.