Mobile Industry Goes Green in Face of Soaring Use

Recently, the GSMA hosted a webinar titled How to Build an Energy-Efficient Wireless Network.

The event coincided with a new report from the GSMA, A Blueprint for Green Networks. One of the main arguments presented in the report is that there’s a potential conflict between soaring data traffic and industry efforts to achieve carbon neutrality. Without intervention, it argued that even in the best-case scenario mobile networks will almost double their power consumption between 2020 and 2025. In the worst-case scenario, this increase will be nearly sevenfold.

The paper suggests three main ways to improve mobile network efficiency: using an energy efficiency indicator system; implementing more energy-efficient products and solutions in equipment like antennas, radios and network management software; and improving areas such as passive cooling and network shutdown solutions that use artificial-intelligence (AI).

During the webinar speakers from China Telecom, e&, Orange and Huawei addressed aspects of this problem while setting out their own green credentials. The operators described how to improve energy efficiency in mobile networks, helping reduce carbon emissions and achieving environmental targets. The presenters noted several recent trends: mobile data traffic continues to rapidly increase as 5G roll-out gathers pace, mobile networks remain a major source of energy use for operators and recent energy cost rises are placing additional strain on financial metrics.

Ying Shi, director of green and low-carbon technology research at China Telecom, stressed that building an energy-efficient wireless network should be a major concern for all operators.

Ms Shi noted three ways China Telecom is limiting its own carbon footprint. The first is through a 5G network sharing venture with rival China Unicom. Secondly, it’s simplifying mobile sites with more modern antennas and power supply — it claims this has reduced its energy consumption by 45%. And thirdly, AI and data analysis has been deployed in 31 Chinese provinces, leading to better energy consumption management and directly eradicating 500,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year.

Notably, China Telecom has partnered with Huawei to deploy the iTelecomPower site energy solution, which has an integrated fan-free build, natural heat dissipation and autonomous maintenance.

The use of AI was an important part of the GSMA report, which described how shutdown and sleep solutions can forecast data traffic based on factors including historical patterns, the weather and nearby events. It can then identify the necessary thresholds to help manage network resources. Based on the information gathered, algorithms can shut down power amplifiers, transceivers and other large network elements to save energy.

Salem Al Mannaei, vice president of technology infrastructure at Middle Eastern operator e&, said that energy efficiency is a strategic pillar in the design of its network. He pointed out that energy consumption constitutes 20% to 40% of operating expenses, and that this figure is being driven up by continuous data traffic growth.

Mr Al Mannaei said that for a typical mobile operator, network components such as antennas and passive infrastructure represent most of its energy consumption, at 70% to 73%. Data centres account for another 20% to 23%, with offices and retail stores making up only a 3% to 5% and 1% share respectively.

He pointed to a range of initiatives to reduce energy consumption at e&, including removing diesel engines, using solar power, establishing more-efficient cooling techniques and allowing AI to manage network resources — for example putting sites into sleep mode when there is zero traffic.

Asked about e&’s biggest environmental challenges, Mr Al Mannaei said that intense use of data traffic makes it “difficult to flatten the energy curve”. He added that soaring use necessitates more network equipment bring deployed, and that 5G networks differ from previous generations as mini data centres are being deployed closer to the network edge.

Herve Suquet, vice president of energy at Orange, presented the operator’s aims of reducing energy use, cost and carbon emissions. He also described its Energy Action Plan, which includes quarterly reviews of its footprint in several markets, as well as the company’s energy sourcing committee — which regularly reviews the quality and quantity of purchased energy.

Mr Suquet highlighted some of the goals set out in Orange’s long-term strategic plan, Engage 2025. These include reducing scope one and two CO2 emissions by 30% in 2025, compared with 2015. It also intends to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Wang Su, director of Huawei’s marketing for network architecture transformation, outlined the company’s More Bits, Less Watts strategy. The campaign is aimed at improving energy efficiency in telecom networks while supporting ever-increasing bandwidth requirements.

Mr Wang described a three-layer solution. The first part is focussed on operations, including using AI to optimize energy efficiency alongside an indicator to track performance. The second is about the network, with the aim to simplify architecture and limit energy consumption. The third layer tackles cell sites, improving the energy efficiency of equipment and facilities as well as deploying renewable energy; significantly, Mr Wang said that up to 40% of power at some cell sites can be generated using solar energy.

Green networking has become an important focus for telecom operators. But with data traffic growth showing no sign of slowing, improving energy efficiency needs to become an even higher priority. Quickly deploying many of the solutions presented in the webinar could help meet the connectivity requirements of people and businesses while limiting impact on the planet.