Q - How are standards organisations making energy efficiency a critical item on their agenda?
Adrian, who is CTO at ETSI, knows that energy efficiency is a huge subject from a standards point of view. Going back a few years energy efficiency work was largely being driven by the need to reduce operational costs. CSPs found that turning lights and air conditioning off where possible made huge savings. Now that the sustainability agenda has come to the fore there is a desire among CSPs to have a carbon neutral approach. Most Tier 1 operators have declared their targets for carbon neutrality, but the industry still isn’t clear on how to get there. It’s trying to deliver higher bandwidth, lower latency services at the same time as increasing energy efficiency. From a standards approach, there are two approaches to consider: firstly, which performance indicators can be set and reliably measured; secondly, what solutions can we create to achieve those indicators?
Peter agrees that the industry is at a crossroads, aiming to deliver more while consuming less. The vendors in the infrastructure space will play key role in achieving this balance, and there are some positives. For example, the wireless sector is not dependent on copper and removing that from the supply chain would help.
Q – One of the focus areas mentioned is defining the right KPIs. What are you looking at here?
Adrian believes it’s going to take time and effort to get the KPIs right. Basic measures such as volume of data carried divided by energy consumed oversimplifies the problem and doesn’t take into account any more complicated functionality of the network, such as location services and other new features, all of which consume energy. Standards already exist for certain areas, such as the consumption of base stations, but there is a lot of work still to be done as network technology becomes more complicated. The jury is still out as to how you can measure the efficiency of a virtualised network, for example.
Q - With the virtualisation of networks the vendor ecosystem will change. Many American companies are entering the scene. Are they on the same page as the European vendors when it comes to sustainability?
Adrian feels that there is a worldwide commitment to sustainability. Peter follows with a reminder of how complicated the subject of virtualisation is. There is the assumption in the industry that virtualisation will be more cost effective and consume less energy. But this is already in doubt. Virtualised radio, for example, requires the use of some very clever technology, including high energy consuming GPU FPGAs. Just putting everything in software doesn’t make it more efficient. We need to look to other sources for innovation.
Ericsson, is one such source. They have recently made an announcement that their latest base station is 50% more efficient. If it delivers on this promise then the equipment will be very popular. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will also help the industry to understand consumption and leverage automation to optimise the use of the network – for example putting a base station into sleep mode when it isn’t needed, and wake it up again when it is. This could be particularly effective in rural areas.
Q – Regarding the next 5G releases and potentially looking into 6G, what sustainability targets are on the agenda for ETSI?
For 5G, Rel.15 and Rel.16 are out in the wild and, according to Adrian, won’t be reengineered. Rel.17 and Rel.18 (aka 5G Advanced) is currently being defined and energy efficiency is at the foremost of these discussions. In terms of how we can improve 5G from where we are today, there will be no fundamental rewrite, but there may be incremental improvements. The next opportunity to have a significant impact on energy efficiency will be 6G which is targeted for release around 2028. The normal KPIs that ETSI has when designing a new generation are centred on performance and throughput. 6G could well have a KPI based on efficiency, and Adrian expects this to be its most compelling target. But if we’re to achieve on aspirations we need more commitment to funding for 6G research projects.
Q – Research is needed, do you see other parties getting involved such as legislation?
Peter is sceptical as governments are just getting their heads around what sustainability means for the energy sector. In terms of the CSPs, there won’t be legislation but there may be regulation, such as encouraging infrastructure that works with the surroundings. For example, in the UK the distribution networks for electricity are being devolved to distribution service operators that can handle networks where energy is locally generated and the concept of a private wire. A farm that generates its own electricity through solar or wind could have some nearby “private wire” customers – anchor tenants that make that generation a viable investment. One of those customers could easily be an operator.
Adrian adds to the concept of operators using renewable energy with a reminder that recently developed IoT devices require zero power supply, all the power they need is generated from their environment. There is potential for networks to run off renewable energy sources but it will require further technological innovation and business model change.
Q – Will regulation put more pressure on CSPs around spectrum auctions and corresponding obligations regarding rural areas?
Peter believes that is evident already, particularly in Germany, and in Sweden where Stockholm was running off a single 3G network. In the UK there is the Shared Rural Network approach which hopefully will be a more sustainable approach to coverage because you only need one power supply. But it still requires cooperation between the operators who are traditionally competitive about where and how they build their towers and the equipment that goes on them.
Q – Will sustainability become a key differentiator in the CSP market?
Adrian points out that if sustainability enters the consumer debate, the way in which it is measured and evaluated must be consistent and the industry is a long way off that point – to do direct comparisons is complicated. But Peter adds that it could be possible to do this with just two or three simple measures of collectable data, for example the percentage of renewable energy used.
Q – Telcos are supporting the digitalisation of enterprise customers and there is a theory that the IoT could reduce energy consumption. Do telcos need to market this in a different way?
In the field of IoT connectivity, Peter would like to see more realistic numbers in terms of the number of devices that can be put on a network and the nature / use of these devices. For IoT use cases, there are great methods for covering specific areas with specific coverage. Better spectrum sharing techniques can already deliver more capacity. And the closer the network is to its point of use, the less power is needed to blast radio across the geography. If we change the way we optimise the networks in terms of capacity and coverage, then we won’t have base stations wasting energy when the devices using it are indoors.
If you're interested in sustainable networks, UK5G’s Climate & Environment Working Group is working to address the issues and impact that 5G will have on the world’s climate. You can find out more about their work here.