Sustainable telecoms decouples data growth from emissions rise

Sustainable telecoms means decoupling data growth from increased energy use and rising emissions, as vendors report progress in market update.
4 April 2023

Sustainable telecoms: operators are making progress in decoupling the link between data growth, energy use, and carbon emissions. Image credit: Shutterstock Generate.

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Mobile telecommunications is a story about being able to transmit more data using the same resources. Protocols have evolved from time-division multiple access (TDMA), which carved up channel access based on rotating time slots, to code-division multiple access (CDMA), capable of transmitting many calls simultaneously thanks to user-specific spreading codes. More recently, with improvements in carrier synchronization algorithms, operators are pushing multiple access to even higher levels, as demonstrated by the latest 5G technology. And these efficiencies can be seen elsewhere on the mobile network as companies focus on sustainable telecoms – decoupling the link between data growth, energy usage, and carbon emissions.

For example, Vodafone UK has seen a 300% increase in data carried on its network since 2019, but the firm reports that energy consumption has remained flat and carbon emissions have fallen by 77%. It’s interesting to note that data transfer consumes a relatively small fraction (around 15%) of the energy supplied to mobile networks. “Some 85 percent is wasted because of heat loss in power amplifiers, equipment kept idling when there is no data transmission, and inefficiency in systems such as rectifiers, cooling systems, and battery units,” wrote McKinsey analysts back in 2020, when identifying opportunities to create greener telecom networks.

In the meantime, geopolitical events have knocked wholesale energy prices upwards, making that 85% wastage even more costly to the bottom line. There are also sustainability targets to consider, as the environmental performance of firms comes under increased scrutiny. Fortunately, as the McKinsey report highlighted, telecoms providers have a number of cost-reduction strategies that can be applied in the short- and medium-term.

Towards sustainable telecoms

Relatively quick wins for mobile operators include smart sleep and shutdown systems together with internet of things (IoT) enabled energy optimization. Vodafone owns more than 11,000 radio base stations and uses a big data analytics platform, developed in-house, to deliver efficiency gains. The system uses artificial intelligence and machine learning tools to trawl the data and identify so-called ‘consumption anomalies’ – parts of the mobile network that are using greater amounts of energy than expected. Once identified, action plans can then be put in place to optimize performance.

Business growth can have costs attached – for example, Vodafone reports a 4% increase in energy consumption, year-on-year. But the mobile operator has shown that these increases can be more than counterbalanced by efficiency savings across the network. Upgrading base stations to the latest 5G technology will help too. EE, part of the BT Group, is working with Ericsson to modernize its network, installing equipment such as antenna-integrated radio systems that are not just smaller and lighter, but also offer a reduction in energy consumption of up to 40% — based on field measurements.

Naturally, these efficiency gains will only contribute to more sustainable telecoms operations if legacy networks can be decommissioned, to prevent consumption costs from adding up. And if you’ve received a nudge from your mobile operator to upgrade to a 5G device, this will be one of the reasons why. Supporting multiple mobile generations is a hurdle for firms looking to make greater efficiency gains.

Other innovations include self-powered base stations. Vodafone’s European network uses 100% grid-supplied electricity from renewable sources, according to the firm. But self-powered base stations take clean energy options a step further and mean that mobile phone masts can be placed in areas that are not supported by the electricity grid. Diesel generators would have been used in the past, but today, firms are looking to more sustainable options, such as solar battery systems.

Self-powered base stations

In 2021, Vodafone teamed up with Crossflow Energy to develop a self-powered mobile tower design that featured wind turbine technology combined with solar and battery systems. Quiet running, and bird-friendly, the self-powered mobile masts are said to suit areas of outstanding natural beauty. The designs could help to boost network connectivity in rural areas, which can experience patchy cell phone coverage, and show that sustainable telecoms and performance improvements can go hand in hand.

Also, infrastructure updates don’t have to mean that equipment goes to waste. On TechHQ we’ve highlighted how datacenter vendors are identifying opportunities to extend the working life of systems by reselling unwanted and unused items, and making greater use of refurbished servers. In the telecommunications industry too, firms recognize that reuse trumps recycling. And companies are taking bigger steps towards building a circular economy for devices.

For example, Vodafone has a target to reuse, resell, or recycle 100% of its network waste by 2025. The telecom firm has a B2B marketplace for reselling decommissioned network equipment, which helps on this front. Other sustainable telecoms initiatives include making greater investments in clean energy. Operators are installing rooftop solar panels on existing facilities, such as mobile telephone exchanges, while also contributing to standalone solar farms.

In February 2023, Vodafone signed a second major solar purchase agreement in the UK, which both provides energy security and supports the company’s net zero goals. The agreement provides price certainty for the next ten years and involves the construction of five solar farms in total – located in Norfolk, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Dorset – with energy generation expected to start towards the beginning of 2024.

Sustainable growth in the telecommunications sector means decoupling increased data traffic from higher energy costs and greater carbon emissions. The results are encouraging and may even persuade more users to upgrade to 5G services, not just for improved data performance, but to contribute to the energy savings that appear to be up for grabs.