Fraport goes all in on private 5G network

There were a multitude of reasons for Fraport AG, the operating company of Germany’s largest airport in Frankfurt, to build one of the largest European private 5G campus networks: automation, autonomous driving, localization of devices, and processing data in real time. Or as Fraport SVP of IT infrastructure Fritz Oswald puts it: “We definitely see 5G as a key technology for digitalization.”

The motivation to set up its own 5G infrastructure came less from the suffering of a legacy installation and more from the desire to enable new use cases during the digitization journey. At the same time, the network coverage will be extended to the entire airport area. This way, the nearly 30km of perimeter fencing could be monitored with cameras via radio. It would also be possible to spare robots or drones inspection rounds if they patrol independently with 5G support.

And according to Oswald, it’s difficult to adequately illuminate the airport’s large open spaces with the WLAN technology used up to now. “In everyday life, there are always problems with WLAN coverage during under-wing operations, for example, when aircraft wings block reception,” he says.

Oswald adds the importance of illumination for operation because when material or equipment have to be transported to an aircraft over long distances, it’s time-consuming for employees since the speed limit on the apron is 30 km/h. Autonomous vehicles controlled by 5G would help to alleviate this. Another use case could be small robots that transport delayed suitcases to the aircraft rather than be driven by people, as it’s done today. 

Another application is video analytics to visually check the condition of the airport’s runways. A task that, despite edge computing, generates large amounts of data through video streams, which are then transferred to the cloud.

New use cases

Even if new use cases such as autonomous vehicles, patrolling robots, and drones are the focus of the 5G introduction at Fraport, the new technology also brings other advantages like being able to standardize its communications infrastructure. So far, Fraport has operated different radio technologies for voice communication, or to network its IoT devices. Plus, long-term evaluations have been used via public mobile networks, with corresponding SIM cards in other end devices. In the future, though, Oswald intends to continue using WLANs in the terminals themselves, but there are plans to migrate to the more up-to-date and powerful WiFi 6.

“Here, we actually get a licensed frequency we don’t have to share with anyone, so there’s no interference,” he says. “And we can have full use of the allocated frequency band so we can also cover mission-critical topics with 5G.” 

Independence through private 5G

Because of this licensed frequency, network slicing offers from mobile operators were out of the question. As far as slicing is concerned, however, Oswald can imagine that Fraport will later offer its own slicing services for its B2B partners, such as airlines or logistics companies. “The bottom line is that having our own 5G network offers the airport more freedom and more security, because the infrastructure is in our hands end to end,” he says. “In addition, there are fewer dependencies and we control it when we import 5G updates. So we’re not dependent on a carrier and their update plans.” 

The project so far had a research and development phase at the start, which is why Fraport didn’t want to tackle the 5G migration alone, but instead brought in Japanese global telecommunications and technology services company NTT as a partner.

“One thing that spoke in favor of NTT was it had already been able to gain experience of best practices in other 5G projects, such as at Cologne Bonn Airport,” Oswald says.

Azure for 5G as software

Fraport and NTT were also open about the chosen technology approach. “Because we wanted to keep the option open of being able to make adjustments during the project phase, we opted for an open standard and chose OpenRAN as the 5G approach,” says Kai Grunwitz, CEO of NTT Ltd. in Germany. In terms of software, they rely on Azure for 5G, and among other things, the close connection with the IoT world spoke in favor of the Microsoft solution. 

Cisco was also chosen for the network hardware, although the partners are observing the market closely, especially when it comes to antennas, since a number of new developments are still expected. Both Grunwitz and Oswald emphasize that these decisions aren’t set, given that the technology is still in its infancy.

The new technology also had another consequence. Fraport quickly realized that a rollout without careful prior checking for interactions with the existing technology would be too great a risk for airport operations. This gave rise to the idea of ​​setting up a test environment in a kind of sandbox to ensure operations aren’t jeopardized.

At the same time, the test environment acts as an innovation hub to evaluate new use cases for 5G and how these can be rolled out later. There was also a third task: making the new technology visible and tangible for other employees in the company in order to reduce any resistance to 5G that may exist. That’s why Oswald deliberately chose an area around the company headquarters to promote the new use cases that are possible with 5G.

Push-to-talk in the network

So far, the airport operator has used several radio systems with corresponding radio devices, but maintenance is quite complex, which is why Oswald wants to map voice communication via the private 5G network in the future as well. 

“However, our employees in the operations area didn’t want to do without the familiar user experience of the radios because they’re used to just pressing a button and speaking immediately,” he says. What initially sounds insignificant is actually relevant and important in airport practice. And in tricky situations, it can be crucial from a safety perspective whether communication is established within milliseconds, or whether you have to wait for a phone call to be set up. Oswald wants to solve the problem by introducing a modern 5G-capable push-to-talk solution.

Division of labor

Considering the division of labor between Fraport and NTT, Fraport will act both formally and practically as the operator of the 5G network. “Ultimately, it’s also important to us that 5G isn’t seen somewhere as an isolated technology in the future, but is fully integrated into our operational processes,” says Oswald.

Also, Fraport, as a critical infrastructure company, has to ensure security across the entire process chain, from the end device to the backend systems. That’s what Oswald and his team already do by provisioning public 5G SIM cards themselves in the private network to ensure complete documentation. 

NTT also plans to continue their involvement in later operations and to support Fraport as part of a service concept with managed services, or to take over component maintenance. And according to Grunwitz, labor is divided based on a series of levels. “Topics that happen on the apron, such as the question of where and how antennas are operated or the end devices, are our responsibility, while NTT is responsible for the backend area, such as the cloud components, because at Fraport, we take a cloud-first approach,” says Oswald.

Project end 2024

A 2024 end date is understandably ambitious, considering how badly the pandemic crisis hit the airline industry, and Fraport specifically. As a result, the Private 5G project had to be put on hold. But when project work resumed in spring 2022, like many other companies, the company was confronted with supply chain problems of hardware manufacturers. Oswald, therefore, assumes that the entire 5G network won’t be fully expanded until the end of 2024. However, the rollout to the apron should already take place this year.

Cloud Management, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership, Private 5G