The call of nature: telecoms for a sustainable future

The call of nature: telecoms for a sustainable future Massive leaps in telecoms technology and capacity have enabled other industries to reduce their environmental impact – but how is the telecoms sector itself decarbonising and diminishing its damage to the environment? In the first of a two-part examination, we explore the measures being taken, and the role digitalisation plays, in the greening of telecoms tech.
 
The telecoms sector faces a critical dilemma: how to continue increasing capacity and capabilities without increasing carbon footprint?

As the planet verges on critical climatic “tipping points,” corporate social responsibility with regards to environmental impact will become more than just a selling point. In fact, CSPs often neglect to wax lyrical about the environmental benefits of their services, despite the widespread view that customers, particularly from younger cohorts, now strongly prefer sustainable companies.

O2 has set the goal of being the UK’s first net zero mobile network by 2025, while BT is aiming for the more lenient target of 2045. Meanwhile, the GSMA has created an industry-wide climate action roadmap for 2050, in line with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Paris Agreement.

Making telecoms environmentally friendly has long been on the agenda for businesses and regulatory bodies; the European Telecommunications Network Operators' Association (ETNO) launched its Environment and Sustainability Charter in 1996, way back when only around 2.5% of the world’s population had a mobile phone. Now, with mobile penetration exceeding 100% and a huge global carbon footprint, ambitious changes to how the industry operates are required.

To meet their environmental obligations, CSPs are increasingly integrating sustainable technologies and practices at all levels of operations:
 
Power consumption
According to the GSMA, energy consumption accounts for around 20 – 40% of network OPEX and 3% of global energy, placing the telecoms sector among the most energy-intensive industries.

Currently, only 7% of telco electricity needs are being met with renewable sources, but major providers have increasingly sought to introduce renewable energy into their networks, citing the ever-lowering cost and ever-growing calls for sustainability by consumers and investors. However, including new, 5G network deployments, the total energy expenditure of the telecoms sector is predicted to reach as much as a fifth of all energy by the middle of the decade.

By allowing virtualisation of key functions at the “edge,” providers can shrink base stations to reduce their demands, or power them off-grid with renewable energy sources. Many base stations, particularly those in the developing world, are in remote areas with little in the way of reliable access to the grid – making them ideal for solar or wind power generation, and many are already powered in this way.

As well as changing how base stations are powered, network equipment vendors are also pursuing innovative set-ups to maximise the output of existing base stations. For example, Ericsson’s Evo RAN, allows operators to run GSM, WCDMA, and LTE as a single network, requiring far less power, while simultaneous wireless information and power transfer (SWIPT) allows for transmission of both wireless data and power over the same signal. Measures to recycle wasted energy from mobile devices have even been mooted by scientists at Ohio State University.

However, on the users’ end, although charging a phone uses a negligible amount of energy, to stream an hour of Netflix a week will, over the course of one year, use more energy than two fridges.

As the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, responsible sourcing of electricity must happen at all levels of industry for the greening of telecoms technology to be truly effective. But if power consumption costs drop, will passing these savings on to consumers only encourage more to invest? And will these new additions to the network cancel out any gains made?
 
Infrastructure
With much telecom infrastructure in need of upgrades for 5G, now is the time for providers to implement new, eco-friendly measures in their networks. In 2019, overall emissions from the telecom sector decreased by 8.5%, and the rollout of 5G could cut emissions by as much as half a billion tonnes over the next decade, if forecasts are to be believed.

Furthermore, Edge Computing is expected to greatly reduce the environmental impact of the telecoms sector, but despite the migration of many services to the cloud, CSPs nonetheless still depend on what is very much physical infrastructure.

The first carbon-negative data centre opened in Sweden this year, and more are being built in Iceland and Greenland, combining renewable energy resources with a climate agreeable to keeping vast server farms cool. However, their relative isolation and limited connectivity with the rest of the world presents its own infrastructure problems – hence the construction of a new undersea cable linking Iceland to Europe.

The Internet of Things is allowing unprecedented control over network diagnosis and optimisation, meeting peaks and troughs in demand in real-time – though the integration of connected devices into networks will only add to the total energy expenditure, not to mention creating even more data to be stored and processed.

Nevertheless, IoT and 5G are central to new, sustainable networks, requiring digital services and operations to be redesigned around automation to the greatest extent possible.

This requires optimisation and simplification of networks, as well as the supporting BSS/OSS platforms; newer, energy efficient tech is all well and good – but unless old, inefficient legacy equipment is retired, more energy will continue to be used keeping layers and layers of redundant tech running.

To deliver the level of connectivity and service that consumers will expect in the next generation of networks while maintaining a clean environmental record, CSPs must transform into digital, cloud-native service providers, requiring BSS/OSS modernisation to meet the demands of new virtualised infrastructure.