Network provider calls for three-pronged approach
To kick off its activities at MWC 2022, Huawei hosted a forum on 27 March, a day before MWC’s official start, titled Lighting Up the Future. Featuring an impressive array of speakers from industry bodies and major network operators, the invitation-only event focussed on the themes of green networks and IT, operator strategies for 5G as well as enterprise uses. Sustainability was a headline throughout the show and something Huawei reiterated in many of its activities.
Massamba Thioye, representing the United Nations Climate Change Global Innovation Hub, made an impassioned opening remark calling for greater ambition in climate action as current measures aren’t yet effective enough or fast enough. He said that we need new ways of incentivizing network solution providers to innovate, and that this requires more commitment.
Luis Neves, CEO of the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), spoke about the evolution of IT enablement, presenting data from his organization’s research about the industry’s positive impact on system transformation, enabling global sustainability goals and digital inclusion. For example, GeSI data suggests that 5% more digital access yields tangible benefits for health, carbon dioxide emissions and gender equality.
Mr Neves described the combination of artificial intelligence and communications technology as catalysts for sustainable development and outlined a Digital with Purpose framework that GeSI has developed for benchmarking companies in their commitment to speeding digital impact through technology. Participants would receive an overall score based on business model, innovative digital solutions, core business practices and execution of strategies relating to climate change, digital trust, circular economy, digital inclusion, supply chain, among other criteria. Such indicators are important in making companies more accountable for environmental and social action.
Stephen Moore, head of climate action at the GSMA, talked about three primary initiatives in the mission to achieve carbon neutrality in the mobile telecom sector. He also outlined three ongoing challenges:
- Firstly, cutting carbon emissions, for example by reducing energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions in networks and operations. To date, 50 mobile operators have already committed to radically reduce carbon emissions, with some aiming for net zero by 2040.
- Secondly, increasing usage of renewable energy by leaning on cleaner, green energy sources such as wind, solar and hydro. Another related aspect could be carbon-offsetting strategies like investment in carbon sinks such as forests, oceans and other natural environments, viewed in terms of their ability to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Thirdly, adopting circular economies by using fewer rare or difficult-to-extract raw materials, sharing infrastructure, and reusing and recycling materials, products and services. This must include lowering emissions in the supply chain as well.
The enablement effect — a principle that puts 5G as a major driver of sustainability in other industries — has been a recurring message from the GSMA to the IT and technology industry and beyond, but can only be realized by accelerating adoption of 5G networks and services in different industry sectors.
Dr Philip Song, chief marketing officer of Huawei’s carrier business group, gave a presentation outlining five misconceptions of green development. These were, in brief:
IT is responsible for a high proportion of global carbon emissions. According to Dr Song, only 1.97% is produced by the industry, and he went on to present convincing evidence of how all-optical transmission of data can enable green development industries.
Green networking overfocusses on supply chain emissions. Equipment production is actually responsible for 2% of emissions, Dr Song said, with the majority being from network usage.
Green development equals solar plus wind (renewables). In reality, the industry needs a three-part solution for energy efficiency. It should be made up green operations, such as green sites and use of renewable energy; network operations, which need to be simplified, optical and intelligent; and user operations, for example, migrating users to 5G networks. Dr Song talked about how it takes 1 kWh of electricity to download 30 high-definition movies over 3G networks, compared with 300 movies over 4G or 5,000 over 5G —orders of magnitude improvements.
The sum of equipment efficiency equals network efficiency. Although it’s true that the use of renewables in the IT industry does have a positive impact on carbon footprint, it doesn’t reduce energy consumption. Equipment efficiency needs to go beyond single-point “in box” equipment at cell sites and data centres to extrapolate energy efficiency throughout the network, using network management and artificial intelligence-driven techniques.
Energy saving shouldn’t affect network performance indicators. The truth is that dynamic reduction of network resources to conserve energy will have some impact on network performance. For example, shutting down a single network carrier at midnight to lower energy usage might reduce capacity experienced by users from 50 Mbps to 45 Mbps, but this is a tolerable reduction.
Huawei’s Dr Philip Song presenting at the company’s event
On the topic of network performance, in June 2021, Huawei proposed the Network Carbon Intensity index, in which carbon emissions per bit of data act as a new metric for green networks. This initiative is to better manage and measure carbon reduction and could counterbalance the industry’s push to increase network usage.
Energy usage accounts for a growing proportion of mobile operators’ operational expenditure. At the event, several operators contributed commentary of their own green networking strategies. Jeroen Cox, strategic lead of energy and environment at KPN, explained how critical raw materials are to the design of network equipment, and that circular economy strategies like reducing, refurbishing or recycling should be considered to lower the supply risk of the materials in collaboration with partners in the value chain.
Hervé Suquet, vice president of the energy group at Orange, said that energy transition will need massive investment and commitment, adding that all management of Orange is incentivized based on carbon and energy results, and that the company had adopted an end-to-end approach to energy saving throughout its networks.
Bernd Leven, head of energy performance for Vodafone, reported that the operator now sources 56% of energy from renewables, and is seeing growth of 50% in mobile data traffic year-on-year, but only 1% energy consumption growth overall. He cautioned, though, that 5G needs to be more fully exploited to see continuing control of network-based energy usage.
Tanveer Mohammad, senior vice president of global operation at Telenor, talked about the impact of launching 5G networks on energy increase, and highlighted the operator’s launch of project Thunderbolt in 2019 to dive deep into energy usage across demand and supply.
Huawei’s event on sustainable development in the IT industry raised many valid points for further thought. One of the recurring themes was that 5G is more energy-efficient than previous generations of mobile technology, so it’s vital for operators to migrate traffic to 5G networks quickly. But, as several speakers outlined, there’s more to the effort than that: the combination of 5G with a simplified, more intelligent, all-optical network yields fundamental performance and operational improvements, helping operators and the IT and technology industry build a future based on “more bits, fewer watts”.
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