ICT must play its role in decarbonisation, but is there already a link between 5G and net zero infrastructure?

With COP27 wrapping up the agenda for this year, some key points have been made about the ICT industry and its role in decarbonisation, especially within the realm of 5G and net zero. While there is validity in focusing on how technology might support decarbonisation across sectors, it can also play a considerable role in reducing its own energy consumption.

BCG (Boston Consulting Group) estimates that action by the ICT industry alone could eliminate up to 15% of all global emissions by 2030, more than a third of the total emissions reductions needed to meet global sustainability targets. In total, 12.1 gigatons of CO2 could be saved, equating to $6.5 trillion.

As a subset of the ICT industry, the telecoms sector currently generates 1.6% of all carbon emissions. If left unmanaged, this could equate to as much as 14% of global CO2 emissions by 2040.

Spearheaded by the GSMA, most major telcos have now co-signed an agreement to reduce the energy needed per unit of traffic by 70% before 2050. However, how does this coincide with a growing appetite for global data and connectivity to combat the world’s digital divide?

5G emerges to tackle the digital divide

The ITU estimates that approximately 5.3 billion people – or 66% of the world’s population – are using the Internet in 2022. While this represents an increase of 24% since 2019 and a significant 1.1 billion people are estimated to have come online during that period, this still means that there are a further 2.7 billion people offline, unconnected.

Increased awareness of the digital divide has driven the improved connectivity we are seeing today, and 5G is increasingly the technology behind it. Essentially, the use of strategically placed, ubiquitous hotspots delivers the speed and reliability that we need without compromising the quality of the connection. It also diminishes the need for operators to lay cables – a costly, time-consuming and disruptive approach. This unintrusive way of connecting societies means that cellular connectivity can be rolled out quickly and cost-effectively to more people across wider areas, improving the link between 5G and net zero.

However, there’s a catch. According to technology analysts ABI Research, the growth in 5G traffic could increase operators’ power consumption by as much as x61 between 2020 to 2030, with more complex networks, more powerful network elements, and more traffic all contributing to this surge in energy consumption.

The flip side of this though is that the accelerated pace of the roll-out of 5G networks comes with the ability to sunset older, more inefficient technologies. According to the latest information collected by the GSA, which tracks the deployment of cellular infrastructure in markets around the world, by the end of September 2022, 142 operators had either completed, planned or are in progress with 2G and 3G switch-offs in 56 countries and territories.

With this comes a further sustainability dividend. Not only are operators spared from having to power multiple networks across multiple iterations of technology, but they can sunset networks which are, by today’s modern standards, power-hungry. In many cases, 3G networks can be as much as 70% less energy efficient than their 4G equivalents, meaning there are valuable financial and environmental incentives in replacing them. 5G and net zero are more possible than other networks.

So, as connectivity and mobile data continue to grow, and legacy networks are phased out in favour of increasing 5G deployment, how can the industry curb its impact on carbon emissions and on the planet?

The journey to sustainability

As consumers (and investors) begin to look more closely at the green credentials of network operators, their infrastructure, and operations, there is a concerted effort to focus on the practical steps that operators need to take to align 5G with sustainability and green credentials.

Firstly, buying ‘green’ is a sensible first step towards sustainability. Pledging to buy renewable energy to reduce the impact of power consumption is a viable and valuable option. Companies like Vodafone, for example, have committed to buying 100% of the electricity that they use to power their networks from renewable sources to reduce their carbon footprint. However, with 5G causing increased consumption, operators must take a multifaceted approach to carbon reduction, and this is one piece of that jigsaw.

Secondly, Thomas Edison said it best: “Good fortune is what happens when opportunity meets with planning”. Network planning is crucial in today’s environment, and the increased complexity and CAPEX costs of 5G roll-out makes accuracy even more important than ever. Where and when will 5G services be required most? What new infrastructure will be required, and what can be overlaid with 5G to ensure the network capacity is where it needs to be when it needs to be there?

The new business models and revenue streams that become available through 5G mean network planning can no longer be an afterthought in the business. New ways of working, where tech and business teams work together, off the same data, to make smarter decisions, not only make for smarter CAPEX decision-making and optimized return of investment by ensuring the right infrastructure is deployed in the right place. It also means they can save on the carbon footprint of unnecessary macro and small cells when delivering 5G networks that will still provide a compelling customer experience. Smarter planning and optimized networks make both good business and eco-sense.

Lastly, AI has a role to play because it is very effective at delivering energy-efficiency improvements. Indeed, it’s already being cited in operators’ annual reports as a key tool for optimizing energy efficiency through smarter network design and deployment.

Data-powered efficient energy management will play an important role in 5G network operations. Management is applied across entire networks, including energy transmission from the supplier and the base station sites themselves e.g., cooling, heating, and lighting, the power supplies for network elements and mobile data transmission.

AI also enables operators to streamline and optimize outdated processes. Take the critical routine of drive-testing, where devices would physically be driven around the network, testing that the experience promised is the one being delivered. Big network vendors like Nokia are now using AI-driven technologies to predict where to drive and what tests to perform, removing trial and error and saving unnecessary driving and pollution. It also significantly impacts the time to market and efficiency of their network deployments, accelerating 5G roll-outs and helping operators reduce their time to revenue. It’s clear that the drive towards net zero and an improved ROI go hand-in-hand.

Sustainability must be a business priority

Roman Freidrich from Boston Consulting Group summarizes it well when he says: “Up to this point in time, the telco sector hasn’t been subjected to the same level of scrutiny and criticism as other high-emitting sectors of the economy,” but consumer and investment pressure is changing this reality.

In this regard, evolved technologies like 5G offer new opportunities for operators to shed their legacy networks and ways of working, replacing them with a more efficient, cost-effective and greener 5G network infrastructure. Virtualization also provides an opportunity to meet sustainability standards. While virtualizing the mobile packet core has been beneficial, there are even greater carbon savings to be realized at the edge in the Radio Access Network (RAN), particularly for 5G.

The benefits – more efficient energy consumption means lower power bills; more accurate planning translates into CAPEX and OPEX savings and happier customers with lower churn; and modern ways of working, with AI-driven processes – mean not just better decision-making but being able to optimize the whole value chain and share the net-zero benefits more widely.

Sustainability in the sector will continue to be an ongoing business driver, and organizations that act to deliver on 2050 carbon-neutral goals, as well as 5G and net zero, will find that not only is it a win for operators but also a win for customers and the planet.

This piece was written by Yann Le Helloco, Chief Technology Officer, Infovista


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