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Green 5G networks and the future of sustainable telecoms


From the telecoms industry to politics, sustainability and climate change are among the defining issues of the modern age, but exactly how to tackle these crucial issues remains controversial.

The recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, which brought together the United Nations to develop a cohesive strategy to combat climate change, has broadly been denounced as a failure, demonstrating that the world is not on track to reach the targets set by the Paris Agreement. In fact, even if all the pledges made at or before COP26 were to be kept, statistics from the International Energy Agency show that the global temperatures are expected to rise by 1.8 degrees Celsius, exceeding 1.5-degree limit set out in the Agreement.

Clearly, there is work to be done – and on an international scale – if we are to prevent a climate catastrophe in the coming years.

But exactly what role can the technology and telecoms sectors play in this journey?

This was the question that the ITU sought to answer in an online panel session entitled ‘Greening our own house: Addressing the environmental footprint of digital technologies’, which took place on the 24th of November.

The session featured a hugely varied panel, including speakers from telecoms technology leaders Ericsson, Huawei, and Immersion4; government officials from Egypt, Costa Rica, and Egypt; French regulatory body ARCEP; and even the World Health Organisation, all of whom were invited to share their views on the challenges and opportunities of digital technology in a sustainable context.

Telecoms: A green industry, but not green enough

Communications technology has long been regarded something of a double-edged sword when it comes to sustainability. On the one hand, as the world grows increasingly digital and data demand soars, electricity consumption will similarly increase, potentially leading to a hugely increased emissions footprint. On the other hand, next generation connectivity, like 5G, will be paramount in facilitating the digital transformation, hence delivering secondary environmental benefits.

In fact, despite increasing demand, recent statistics from the GSMA suggest that the mobile industry is only responsible for about 0.4% of global carbon emissions.

But while this may seem like an impressively low figure in its own right, the wider ICT industry has targets of reducing its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 45% between 2020 and 2030, a transformation that will rely not only on harnessing new technologies but also on an industry-wide change of attitude.

Greening your own house first: The case of Huawei

For Huawei, this greener mindset begins with making your own operations more sustainable. For many years, the company has been working to reduce their environmental impact, with Huawei’s VP of Wireless Marketing, Daisy Zhu, noting on the panel the company’s engagement in various projects, from utilising renewable energy to recyclable packaging.

“We’re committed to minimising environmental impact during production, operation, and throughout the whole lifecycle of our services,” she said. “We’re looking at every single aspect in producing and operating our products.”

In fact, this approach is already having a major impact on the company’s overall emissions, which have shrunk significantly over the past decade.

“In 2020, our carbon emissions per million RMB of revenue were 33.2% lower compared to the baseline year 2012. Our target was 30%, so we not only fulfilled the commitment but are now doing an even better job,” explained Zhu. “Looking forward, by 2025 we will reduce carbon emissions per million RMB of revenue by 16% compared to 2019 levels.”

But the sustainable value of the ICT industry, of course, goes far beyond making their own operations more sustainable. The digital technologies and connectivity that the industry enables allow their customers to better achieve their own sustainability transformations.

The extent of this impact cannot be understated, with a recent GSMA study suggesting that ICT technology can deliver a ten-fold positive impact when it comes to sustainability.

“This means that a single kWh of power consumption from mobile network infrastructure will lead to a 10-kWh reduction of electricity usage in society,” explained Zhu.

Energy efficiency is key

Of course, when it comes to sustainability, there is an elephant in the room that must be assessed: energy consumption.

As data demand soars higher than ever, networks must inevitably grow to meet this demand, bringing with them higher energy usage. As a result, judging networks’ sustainability purely on absolute energy consumption could be misleading; a nationwide network will have far higher energy usage than a smaller, localised network, but its impact on society will be much greater.

“If you wanted to really reduce carbon emissions, we should switch off all the networks – but we can’t go back to the old days, back to our old life,” said Zhu, reiterating the ten-fold sustainability benefits these technologies can bring to various vertical industries. “Operators have never confined their green strategies to just reducing the emissions of their own networks – they need to help satisfy the growing environmental requirements of consumers.”

Instead of absolute energy consumption, Zhu posits that it is in fact energy efficiency that should be the metric by which networks are judged. This will give operators a fairer, more objective standard for developing greener networks, guiding them towards the green 5G networks that will be required to achieve low-carbon goals.
“Energy efficiency will be a key metric,” explained Zhu. “Network efficiency provides network operators with a clear objective standard by which to measure their impact.”

Building green networks

This focus on energy efficiency is evident in the company’s own technologies.

Zhu explained how their Single Radio Access Network (SingleRAN) technology, which was released in 2007 and allows a single piece of hardware to support 2G, 3G, and 4G simultaneously, has had a major impact on network energy efficiency over the last decade and a half.

“This SingleRAN profoundly changed the sites requirements as compared to traditional deployments,” said Zhu. “It’s really cost effective and really energy efficient. It can reduce the power consumption of each base station by 50%.”

More recently, the company is focussed on using Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology to improve the performance of their networks.

“This is another technology that can tremendously improve the throughput and speed for the end user, and at the same time improve the products energy efficiency,” she said. “Massive MIMO is already one of the mainstream technologies for 5G.”

Earlier this year, the company’s latest innovations include the MetaAAU, an extremely large-scale antenna array that will further reduce Massive MIMO power consumption by 30%.

Beyond these hardware innovations, Huawei is also leveraging technologies like AI to make network management more efficient. Zhu notes that the company launched its PowerStar solution back in 2018, a solution which uses AI to monitor network demand in real-time and optimise energy consumption accordingly, without sacrificing performance for the customer. PowerStar 2.0, released this year, will further reduce power consumption of networks across 2G, 3G, 4G, and now 5G, by up to 25%.

On the basis that there will be an estimated 6.5 million 5G sites globally by 2025, this means the PowerStar solution could decrease network emissions by 43 million tons of carbon dioxide in the next four years.

Collaborate to succeed

Creating greener networks and a greener ICT industry is clearly reliant largely on technological innovations, but this alone will not be enough to deliver the scale of sustainable transformation required to stave off climate change. To maximise the value of these technologies and really make a difference, the ICT and telecoms industries must collaborate with regulators, governments, and each other to advance the sustainable agenda. From working on new solutions to developing cohesive standards, dialogue and cooperation will be key to building a greener future.

“We can either work together and make it happen as a team, or we will be losing as individuals, one decision at a time,” said Serge Conesa, Founder & CEO of sustainable data centre specialist Immersion4 SA and final speaker on the ITU panel. “We have a tremendous opportunity to make it right. It’s never too late.”

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