Private LTE keeps Rotterdam terminal afloat

Rotterdam World Gateway describes itself as the world's most innovative and automated container terminal. (RWG)

For Rotterdam World Gateway, private LTE was the solution to an unforeseen problem. In 2015, the Dutch company decided to build a new terminal at the Port of Rotterdam. Europe’s largest port was expanding to accommodate the increasing number of ships from China, and Rotterdam World Gateway wanted to participate. From the beginning, the company envisioned an automated system with a limited number of workers manning the terminal. What the company didn’t envision was congested Wi-Fi networks that made its automated terminal too expensive to operate. 

“From day one they had a lot of issues with the Wi-Fi connectivity,” said Etienne Scholl, pre-sales manager for campus solutions at Ericsson. Ericsson was called in to evaluate the idea of using a private LTE network to replace Wi-Fi. When the team visited the terminal, they saw cranes pulling large steel containers from ships and placing them onto automated guided vehicles, which stacked them into rows. More than 50 rows of steel containers were waiting to be driven inland, and each row had its own Wi-Fi system. The systems interfered with one another, as well as with Wi-Fi on ships and trucks nearby. 

Scholl said the Wi-Fi interference caused outages, and each outage led to an expensive delay. “You stop everything and you make sure that it works again and then you restart,” he said. “Each outage costs a lot of money.” He estimates that the cost of keeping a ship on the quay is tens of thousands of Euros a day, so the goal is to unload the ships quickly and send them on their way. 

A private LTE network brought costs back into line for Rotterdam World Gateway and enabled the company to continue operating the automated terminal. Ericsson deployed the network in the 3.5 GHz spectrum band, which the Dutch government has temporarily made available for companies that want to test private cellular networks. Scholl expects this spectrum to become more permanently available to industry in 2022.

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Ericsson placed LTE antennas atop three light poles that were almost 40 meters tall. Base stations were installed below two of the poles. A redundant core network is housed in two on-site office buildings. The network became operational in early 2018, and covers roughly 108 acres. 

The automated terminal is now handling more than 2 million containers a year, with roughly 15 workers on site. Scholl said Rotterdam World Gateway has plans to expand to more than 4 million containers a year. He said ports are a prime use case for private LTE and that Ericsson is talking to potential customers in Europe and Asia. At the Port of Rotterdam, a company called Europe Container Terminals also has a private LTE network, built by another vendor. 

Jan Diekmann, Ericsson’s technical account manager for business development and partnerships, said the use cases presented by the ports Ericsson is talking to often involve automation, and can be satisfied by LTE.

“In other ports we see that use cases can be handled in LTE,” he said, adding that this is fortunate because of the “larger variety of end devices that they can use, compared to the existing landscape of 5G standalone devices that are on the market today. So LTE is not dead yet.”

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