BT Showcases Its Sustainability Credentials

Last week, I attended BT’s Sustainability Festival, which the UK operator hosted at its research and innovation centre at Adastral Park in Suffolk.

The day brought together more than 2,000 partners, customers and experts, and included an extensive conference programme, an exhibition and behind-the-scenes tours.

Its scale was a good illustration of how quickly sustainability has climbed up the telecom agenda in recent times. It’s hard to imagine an operator hosting an event of this magnitude dedicated to the topic even three years ago.

There are many reasons for this, but Sarwar Khan, senior manager of global digital sustainability, highlighted three leading trends: widespread ambition among organizations to meet net-zero targets; regulations requiring companies to disclose their progress; and taxation, such as the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism that’s applied to certain carbon-intensive goods entering the EU.

Like other operators, environmental commitments are a major part of BT’s manifesto. For example, the company intends to be carbon-neutral by the end of March 2031 for its own operations, and by the end of March 2041 for its supply chain and customer emissions.

To achieve the first target, BT is engaging in many activities that are becoming commonplace across the industry. For example, it’s already using 100% renewable electricity worldwide and has pledged to transition most of its fleet of 32,000 vans to electric or zero-emission vehicles by the end of the decade.

Migrating customers away from older, traditional networks to more-efficient technologies such as full fibre and 5G will also help. At a briefing for analysts last year, BT said that its 3G network accounts for between 30% and 35% of the total power usage of its mobile networks, despite representing only 3.2% of mobile data traffic (see Insight Report: BT Places Reliability at the Heart of Its Network Vision). This week, it confirmed plans to switch off its 3G network in the UK by March 2024.

The telecom industry also sees itself as an important enabler to the thousands of other organizations hoping to reach challenging net-zero targets. This was a consistent message at the event, but although companies like BT do have a major role to play, I hope the industry doesn’t fall into the trap of “greenwashing”, where marketing teams add tenuous environmental links to almost every announcement.

One service that doesn’t fall into this trap is BT’s Digital Carbon Calculator, which can measure the environmental impact of what customers buy from BT, ranging from network equipment to devices. Its sister product, the Carbon Network Dashboard, gives customers a real-time view of the energy performance of their devices. It helps customers calculate their carbon footprint, decide when would be best to run workloads over their network and identify and prioritize the replacement of carbon-intensive devices.

BT used the event to announce a new collaboration with Johnson Controls, a US firm focused on sustainable buildings. According to the World Green Building Council, buildings are responsible for 39% of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it makes sense for BT to prioritize this area. This figure comprises 28% from operational emissions — such as the energy needed to heat, cool and power buildings — and 11% from materials and construction.

With little pedigree in decarbonization technologies, BT is right to seek partnerships with experts. Expanding on its tie-up with Johnson Controls, the operator said it plans to combine its secure connectivity with its partner’s Open Blue platform, enabling customers to measure, analyse and optimize their energy usage.

BT showcased several trials of liquid cooling technology at the festival. All electrical systems generate heat, which must be dissipated to ensure continuous high-performance operation. Like most large data centres, BT uses air-based systems to cool its network and IT equipment. But as demand continues to rise, hardware must work harder. This means it also becomes hotter, driving up the energy usage and operational costs to cool it.

One of several demonstrations in this area was from Australian company Immersion4, which showed how networking equipment can be fully immersed in a tank filled with a dielectric liquid, which doesn’t conduct electricity, with only the cooling fans needing to be removed before submersion. This approach means that only the equipment is cooled — the company likened it to chilling a bottle of champagne, rather than the space around it.

Immersion4’s immersion tank, which BT is trialling at Adastral Park

I commend BT for putting on an inspiring event that addressed an increasingly important topic for the telecom industry. Other operators are saying similar things about the environment, so it’s difficult to measure BT against its peers, but I came away with the sense that it’s at least among the more forward-thinking in this area.

I was also relieved that BT didn’t try to dress up telecom operators’ role in the environment. CEO of BT Business, Bas Burger, rightly pointed out that although technology is crucial to achieving net-zero ambitions, it can also be part of the problem. This was a reference to the carbon emissions from creating and transporting huge volumes of data traffic, something that could rapidly multiply when the expected huge impacts of generative artificial intelligence really start to take hold. Even without this, BT still expects an eightfold increase in data between now and 2030.

Environmental concerns will remain a major topic for operators and their customers for many years, and something that we’ll touch on extensively in our upcoming Predictions event. Sign up for the online event here.