Over the past year several CSPs have announced investments in more energy efficient technologies and made moves to provide greater accountability. One recent example is Telefónica, which this month announced a 5.5 billion euro refinancing program that links the company’s interest rates to compliance with environmental objectives.
“I think the mobile network operators are taking this much more seriously and making real efforts to address the issue,” said Professor Tim O’Farrell, Chair Professor of Wireless Communications at the University of Sheffield and Director, CommNet2, speaking during TM Forum’s Hard Talk: Net Zero, sustainability and the impact of cloud.
Governments are also starting to get involved. In November 2021, the French Senate passed a law obliging French operators to provide customers with information on their bill about how their individual data consumption translates into greenhouse gas emissions. A French Senate report stated that in 2019 the digital sector accounted for 2% of greenhouse gases in France in 2019, with the figure potentially rising to 6.7% by 2040.
"CSPs already have ways to improve energy efficiency, including the use of sleep mode to make a cell – or even an antenna – inactive when it is not needed. Network management tools also help, said James Crawshaw, Principal Analyst, Telco IT & Operations, Omdia. In addition, CSPs can switch off 3G networks as they add 5G networks, which have been designed with higher energy efficiency than previous generations of infrastructure.
But customers’ appetite to use more and more data, combined with competition between telecoms providers to deliver the best service performance, means that network usage is set to rise.
“It’s the radio base stations which are really power-hungry devices, and units within the radio access network. So, we’re going to see more of those deployed, and we should expect to see…energy consumption increase, and something has to be done about that,” said O’Farrell.
Indeed, given the options that already exist for operators to cut energy use, Crawshaw wonders whether one of the obstacles is CSPs’ reluctance to impact customer service by putting in place energy-saving measures that could diminish network performance.
“My personal belief…is that operators do have the tools available to them… to reduce their energy consumption in their mobile networks. But they choose not to use them because that could interfere with the performance,” he said.
“Essentially, they want to make sure they score very high in consumer reviews of the performance and availability and throughput of their networks. So, it really comes down to the consumer,” said Crawshaw. “Switch to an operator who’s going to be greener, consume less energy [even if] that means perhaps your bandwidth speeds will be lower.”
The bit per joule energy efficiency metric shows that transmission over 5G networks is a lot more efficient than 4G, said O’Farrell. “[But] it doesn’t address this operational aspect, which is…when something becomes more efficient, there is a paradox. We tend to end up installing more of it and using more of it and it’s that which is potentially going to grow the energy consumption.”
And although many tools and technologies exist to help CSPs improve energy efficiency, numerous gray areas remain as CSPs build up 5G coverage. “People often talk about the densification of lots of small cells…and how that could lead to extra power consumption,” said Crawshaw. “However, there are studies that suggest just the opposite.” There are also discussions around whether or not Open RAN and disaggregation will produce energy savings, according to the speakers.
Moving operations to the cloud, which has been touted as one of the ways to help CSPs improve energy efficiency, may not be a cure-all either.
“There are clear benefits of moving certain workloads into the cloud, because a huge focus on greener technology means…increased access to the newest technology, which by definition includes more and more sustainability components,” said Monte Hong, Worldwide Communications Industry Business Strategy Lead, Microsoft. However, he adds: “I also think it’s just part of an overall very complex equation with a lot of partners in it. I don’t think it’s as simple as to say…that hyperscalers by definition are going to be better or worse.”
To find out more, watch the Hard Talk: Net Zero, sustainability and the impact of cloud on-demand here.