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Using Nature’s Own Networks, Part 2

In the first part of our discussion on the huge potential for canals, rivers and waterways to not just be pretty parts of our industrial pasts but also to play a vital role in our digital futures, we talked about Europe’s vision for TEN-T—a cornerstone of European transport policy since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, which has crystallised in the last decade into a multi-billion euro drive to build an effective, EU-wide and multimodal transport network across Europe.

Using Nature’s Own Networks, Part 2: Europe and China want to connect us better physically. There’s no reason we can’t add a data layer on top to seal the deal
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
18 Oct 2023

In it—because we had to—we talked a lot about geography, policy, and the built environment. (We did also talk about the 500 km of cable under our own country’s canals, which we will again shortly.) But now that context’s been set, let’s see how all this should be exciting the network industry.

An ideal departure point is the fact that, a year back, Vodafone announced it would be extending 5G and LTE to Germany’s seaports and inland waterways by deploying another 700 sites to further improve coverage and download speeds across the Federal Republic’s 7,476 km national waterway network.

The fact that more than 1,400 cell phone sites along that waterway were already equipped with 5G technology—meaning 75% of the whole—before the move should tell you a lot. As the (translated) original press release points out, “Not only [will] ship's pilots benefit from the latest mobile communications technology, but also the entire port logistics, sailing and motor boats and all those who travel on Germany's canals and lakes.”

Vodafone says we need to be using waterways more for Green reasons (“A shift in freight transport from trucks to inland waterways is necessary, because federal waterways are already more environmentally friendly than rail or road”). We’re not disagreeing, but we also see the commercial drivers too—as do the people who run another node in Germany’s water infrastructure, Duisburg.

There, right at the heart of the Ruhr, hard-headed businesspeople want to test control of port cranes via mobile phone technology—use of tech and automation that will link cameras and sensors in the port area via 5G technology. 

The idea: make the handling of goods by road, rail, and water more transparent and easier to manage. In other words, digital efficiency—with freight companies leading the way here, looking at what IoT (which means, 5G at the local level) can do. In fact, there’s a growing recognition that IoT-delivered data may be key to unlocking a host of future benefits from increasingly complex applications in shipping, from optimised supply chains to the condition of goods to full digital twins of container vessels and trains, and maybe tech-empowered customs clearance.

Increasing the quality of mobile network connectivity available for all stakeholders

This makes eminent sense—and not just for the Bundesrepublik. Picture a very near future where millions of sensors will be spread across the environments through which we want to push freight (and people)—be that by water, air, road, or rail—and their data is transmitted, collected, and analysed, and so providing a hugely useful source of digital “fuel” to even further drive the optimisation of processes via ongoing training of algorithms. (We summarised many of these ideas in a special project for one of our clients, Telecom26, which you can find here.)

And here, inland water will be central. For sure, some vessels do undertake long, cross-ocean voyages, but a significant duration of most of these is close to shore—and a lot of it in the future will be across and down TEN-T integrated corridors. Land-based mobile networks will need to be available for much more of the journey or voyage than you may think and may need to be very close to the action to work.

It’s clear from the very idea of TEN-T that trackside, riverside and coastal connectivity is being optimised across corridors, like what's happening in Germany already. That's an investment worth making, as it will increase the quality of mobile network connectivity available for all stakeholders—and perhaps in turn spawn yet more (niche 5G or industrial 5G?) use cases. (In many locations, this will map on to the EU’s separate yet related 5G Corridor plans anyway.)

Use cases, and maybe even wholly new industries we can’t even conceptualise yet. But we can’t let Elon Musk walk away with all this business—even if we thought him a trustworthy partner, satellite is not the first choice of platform here, useful as it will be mid-ocean or very remotely.

No: we suspect that a wider range of mobile networks needs to be available. And as transport corridors receive investment boosts to meet the aims of TEN-T (and similar projects round the world, like New Silk Road and Western countermeasures like B3W), multiple networks, including local mobile, will be needed. And, we predict, a lot of it will be soon alongside the inland waterway—promoting use of water as both a Greener way of moving atoms, but also a whole new interpretation of those core Information Superhighway ideas Al Gore told us all about not long after those British canal sides were dug up to help with the fibre-optic load.

After all, Gore said in 1994 that his vision was “an assemblage of local, national, and regional networks”, and there’s no reason water can’t not be a big network on its own. So, we encourage you to think and research about what integrated connectivity on the physical and comms level could achieve in the world around us, not just in the conurbations.

‘The greatest of all improvements’ might still improve our lives one last time

Which brings us back to the humble British canal one last time; maybe you will do your cogitation taking a stroll along one, or even pottering down one in a narrowboat. Because if we can find money for HS2, why can’t we as a nation have some vision and do something useful and inspiring along our own, post-Brexit, TEN-T lines?

Imagine if we did that, and found ways to make our transport system both Greener and highly integrated, automated, 5G- and IoT-enabled? Doing so might even revive some of the foundational purposes of the canal system itself, summed up so well by the great philosopher of Capitalism himself, Adam Smith: “Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of the country more nearly upon a level with those of the neighbourhood of the town. They are upon that the greatest of all improvements.”

Or maybe these ideas will end up like all the canals that were never built—and which now just exist as “little more than grand ideas and persuasive booklets”.

We think we can do a lot better than that for our second Industrial Revolution—if we are brave enough.

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