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What will 5G mean for maritime communications?

5G has a key role to play as a self-contained ship-based network to serve massive deployments of IoT devices and applications in maritime environments. It will allow full ship-wide coverage, across thousands of containers and their cargo, while also supporting new forms of documentation and ledgers.

Maritime communications has been identified by 3GPP as a use case for future 5G standardization activities. Of course, this presents challenges, because the terrestrial and maritime environments differ dramatically. None-the-less, work is ongoing to bring maritime communications within the scope of 3GPP standards.

One use case that we think is particularly promising is the use of 5G in an ultra-dense shipboard environment. In terrestrial systems, 5G will provide enhanced coverage to enable what has become known as “Massive IoT” – that is, extending connectivity to thousands of devices within a relatively confined area. So, in a given cell site, it is anticipated that there will be (literally) masses of IoT devices. Current 4G standards cannot support such a proliferation of locally connected devices.

If we consider the vast container ships that convey freight across the high seas, we can see that they present a somewhat similar situation. For some time, there have been many vessels, defined as Ultra Large Container Ships (ULCSs) that can carry more than 10,000 TEU, while a new class is emerging that can carry in excess of 21,000 TEU.

Many freight companies want to equip containers with IoT capabilities, so that they can effectively monitor goods in transit. In other words, the shipping industry is effectively creating floating islands that will contain many thousands of IoT devices in a relatively confined area – just like the situation in land-based mobile cells. And, the situation will be compounded by equipping the goods being transported with IoT capabilities, so we have to consider, not just the number of containers, but also the devices within them. A single ship may end up with more than 100,000 such devices – and that’s a conservative estimate.

We think 5G will be perfect for such situations. We anticipate deploying what will be private 5G networks onboard, so that they can provide the coverage required to serve these thousands of containers. In this context, while 5G may serve certain other maritime requirements, such as modernization of Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) (although it’s unlikely to offer many advantages for classical voice, messaging and data services for crew), it’s going to be key to enabling new IoT capabilities in ultra-dense environments.

So, we’re pushing two new areas. First, creating 5G private networks as an evolution from our current LTE capabilities to serve these emerging dense environments effectively – and to connect these via our satellite capabilities for off-shore connectivity, while leveraging our unique handover to our shore-based networks when in range. These will also capitalize on mesh arrangements, to ensure signals can be propagated into the most distant recesses of such ships.

Second, we also anticipate the integration of new capabilities, such as blockchain for the secure exchange of asset information, customs registration and so on, to expedite on/off-boarding and freight processes.

This is an emerging space, but it’s full of exciting possibilities. 5G will be able to provide the on-board coverage needed to serve the increasingly sophisticated and ultra-dense needs of a completely connected cargo of 20,000 containers, so private ship networks are likely to move rapidly in this direction. And, it will be able to serve new requirements, such as blockchain-enabled documentation and passporting. As such, we’re leading the path towards such deployments and will ensure our solutions are fully aligned with 3GPP initiatives.

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