Cleaner and Leaner: Operators Champion Green Networks

Telecom operators showcase sustainability best practice

Data traffic generated by telecom networks is rapidly rising as 5G proliferates. This is causing energy usage in data centres and in operators’ networks to grow exponentially; if left unchecked, this will increase carbon emissions by the sector from a comparatively moderate 0.4%, according to the GSMA, to 14% by 2040.

Not only would this damage the environment and the telecom industry’s reputation, it would also be costly in financial terms. Energy costs already account for 20% of operational expenditure for network operators. As energy prices increase worldwide, mobile service providers face hefty bills for their rising energy needs while alienating customers, who are becoming more and more environmentally conscious. This could well dent their bottom line at a time when service revenues are already under pressure.

Although it makes financial sense for telecom operators to improve their operational sustainability, it’s also important for them to be perceived as advocates of “green networking”, because people expect companies to show demonstrable progress toward reaching net zero emissions.

There are three primary initiatives in this mission to achieve carbon neutrality:

  • Reducing energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions in networks and operations
  • Using cleaner, green energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower
  • Adopting circular economies by sharing, reusing and recycling materials, products and services.

So, how are operators interpreting these initiatives and building them into best practices? Below are a few examples.

In July 2021, UK-based mobile operator Vodafone announced it had hit its target for usage of renewable electricity across Europe. All the electricity it uses to power its operations in the region now comes from renewable generation sources — a target it brought forward in October 2020, having previously been shooting for 2025. This effort covers its entire European operations, from mobile and fixed-line networks, to data centres, retail outlets and corporate offices.

Vodafone also pledged to repeat this goal in Africa by becoming 100% powered by electricity from renewable sources by 2025. What’s more, the operator has committed to reducing its own carbon emissions to net zero by 2030 and across its entire value chain by 2040, and to reuse, resell or recycle all its network waste by 2025.

The company said its total energy usage has remained flat compared with 2020, despite a hefty increase in mobile data traffic — up by 47% to 11,714 petabytes in 2021. According to Vodafone, its use of network analytics as well as deployment of more efficient mobile technology like massive-MIMO has kept energy use down. Initiatives such as switching off 3G networks and decommissioning older core equipment have also helped.

In September 2021, NTT, parent to Japanese operator NTT Docomo, formulated a new environmental energy vision: NTT Green Innovation toward 2040. It aims to simultaneously achieve zero environmental impact, and promote environmental, social and governance initiatives including a circular economy, whilst stimulating economic growth. Based on this vision, the company aims to be carbon-neutral by 2040 — the Japanese government has declared a target for carbon neutrality by 2050.

NTT is committing to an 80% reduction in emissions compared with 2013 levels by 2030, and carbon neutrality for its mobile and data centre businesses by the same year. It intends to achieve this by expanding its Innovative Optical and Wireless Network (IOWN) initiative, which is targeted at networks and information processing infrastructure and provides high-speed, high-capacity communication and many computational resources. NTT also aims to help society reach carbon neutrality by broadening adoption of IOWN technologies outside telecom services, providing new energy-saving services and expanding introduction of renewable energy.

In Poland, Orange announced that by 2025, it will cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 65% compared with 2015 by continuing to make its network more energy-efficient. It will also increase its use of renewable energy to at least 60%. The goal is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of EU climate goals and the GSMA recommendations for telecom operators. This is a direct continuation of the operator’s previous actions, having reduced its carbon emissions by 20% between 2015 and 2020, despite multiplying data transmission in its networks.

Orange Poland is also reducing emissions in its entire supply chain by implementing principles of a circular economy: buying back older smartphones and recycling defective mobile phones in Orange stores; refurbishing and reusing hundreds of thousands customer-premises equipment devices every year; and introducing innovations to extend the lifespan of devices and lower energy consumption.

All these examples are worthy in their ambitions. But hitting those targets, especially in energy reduction, will be challenging in the face of rising traffic. Some factors, like Vodafone switching off its 3G networks, give a one-off benefit only. Further reductions need to come from technology choices and the way in which the network functions. Here, equipment suppliers have a major role to play.

Electricity costs currently make up 20% to 40% of operating expenditure on cell sites. A lot of energy is wasted through heat loss, equipment running when no data is being sent or received and inefficient cooling systems and battery units. Power loss during transmission is a long-standing challenge for cell sites.

A recent innovation, developed by Huawei and China Tower, is a potential way to help operators achieve greater energy efficiency at the cell site. The 5G Power Solution incorporates system intelligence so that the power system becomes cognitive, interacting with the base station to achieve maximum efficiency. Examples of this include interactions between the cooling system and main equipment, or the use of intelligent voltage boosting. This cuts power consumption by up to 18%. According to performance measurement statistics from cell sites in Hangzhou, China, the 5G Power solution can save 4,130 kilowatt-hours of power per site, per year, equivalent to 1,125 kilograms of carbon emissions. It supports solar power too, using Huawei-developed solar modules.

Green networking initiatives are now a big deal to telecom operators, driven by environmental awareness and the need to save costs. They’re no longer paying lip service to the green agenda and are supported by a growing range of more energy-efficient networking solutions from equipment providers. Our next blog post on sustainability issues in ICT will look at how the telecom sector — using 5G initiatives in particular — can help other industries adopt more energy-efficient practices.