Telco Transformation: Leaner, Cleaner and Greener Networks

In the third of a three-part series, we look at network technology advances and assess how they influence strategy for operators as they transform their networks and positioning for the digital era. You can read part one and part two here.

The green networking concept has seen much more attention from operators recently, typically as part of a wide-encompassing strategy for environmental, social and governance goals. Demand for digital services is spiralling, so network data traffic is growing exponentially. According to the GSMA, if left unchecked, rising energy use in data centres and operator networks will increase the sector’s carbon emissions from a comparatively moderate 0.4% of the global total to 14% by 2040.

A multifaceted approach to achieving carbon neutrality is needed, based on improving energy efficiency in networks and operations, using renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and hydropower, and adopting circular economies by sharing, reusing and recycling materials and products.

Electricity costs comprise up to 40% of operating expenditure for cell sites, with energy wasted through heat loss, equipment running when no data is being handled and inefficient cooling systems and battery units. But 5G could be the most sustainable network platform yet. If operators rethink network resources and energy usage, then 5G, along with optical networking, can spark transformative approaches to energy efficiency. Some of these emerging techniques include:

  • Energy “scavenging” — harvesting energy from the local network, or even from radio frequency signals, to power huge numbers of Internet of things (IoT) devices.
  • Artificial intelligence and machine learning — using cloud-based resources to reduce energy use by turning network elements on and off pre-emptively, rather than reacting to varying traffic levels.
  • Software and hardware synergies — optimizing algorithms so that antennas, such as Huawei’s MetaAAU unit, consume less energy and improve performance; similarly, using algorithms in holographic optics so optical cross-connects can use efficient one-hop connections.

In September 2022, ETSI’s Fixed 5th Generation (F5G) group issued a white paper, Fixed 5th Generation Advanced and Beyond. It proposes that transitioning to more-efficient F5G advanced optical networks will not only reduce the sector’s energy consumption, but generate indirect benefits by enabling extended reality applications and reducing the need for people to travel. But for this to have a lasting positive impact, excellent-quality, low-latency, highly reliable Gigabit bandwidth connectivity is needed.

F5G advanced networks can also help improve energy efficiency in other sectors. For instance, when combined with IoT-enabled services they can provide tools for measuring the energy consumption of consumer electronics, Internet and cloud services — measurements that will raise awareness among governments, industries and citizens about energy consumption and, the paper claims, enable consumer choice.

As mentioned in previous posts, Huawei’s GUIDE blueprint argues that improved technology performance is integral to sustainable practices. Its mantra of “more bits, less watts” advocates the use of more data-efficient technology to deliver more energy-efficient results. And the characteristics of 5G and optical technologies — cloud-based, software-defined, intelligent and distributed — mean that network operators can now make energy efficiency a main consideration when planning and optimizing new networks and services. Some operators are already implementing some of these capabilities, to positive effect.

Vodafone has stated that its total energy usage in 2021 was the same as in 2020, despite a hefty increase in data traffic, citing use of network analytics and deployment of more-efficient massive-MIMO technology in parts of its radio access network in keeping energy use down.

In 2021, NTT announced a vision to achieve zero environmental impact and promote environmental, social and governance initiatives, including a circular economy. The operator committed to an 80% reduction in emissions compared with 2013, and carbon neutrality for its mobile and data centre businesses by 2030 through expanding its Innovative Optical and Wireless Network infrastructure.

Orange in Poland is reducing emissions for its entire supply chain by implementing circular economy principles: buying back older smartphones and recycling defective ones; refurbishing and reusing customer premises equipment and devices; and working to extend the lifespan of devices and lower its energy consumption.

At a recent webinar hosted by the GSMA to launch a white paper focussed on 5G-Advanced, Benoit Graves, Head of 3GPP RAN Standardisation for Orange, described how 5G-Advanced will enable Orange to use energy efficiency as a criterion when evaluating new radio features. It will also allow the company to implement network energy-saving techniques with more granularity. According to Mr Graves, 3GPP Release 18 will develop a detailed methodology for evaluating network power consumption and focus on features such as energy savings in cell beams that ensure 5G-Advanced is less power-hungry.

Although operators are making progress with energy efficiencies in their own networks and operations, the real value could lie in network technology helping other industries reduce carbon emissions by digitizing industrial processes. This would create energy savings by reducing inefficient use of machinery or equipment, or by eliminating the need for travel and reducing vehicle-based carbon emissions, for instance.

A good example here is in the digital transformation of utility networks, using data flows to optimize energy flows. For instance, China Southern Power Grid in Shenzhen, in partnership with China Mobile and Huawei, built what it claims is the world’s first full-service smart grid that applies 5G-based networking in all phases of electric power services, from power transmission, transformation and distribution to consumption. It combines standalone 5G with end-to-end network slicing and edge computing to create a dedicated network for the utility company on China Mobile’s 5G network.

Another example of how 5G can interact with emerging technologies to bring energy savings are smart city programmes, such as those implemented by the C40 group — a network of the world’s cities committed to addressing climate change. In these deployments, 5G connectivity is already becoming an important enabler of sustainability-driven applications such as traffic control, street light operation and monitoring air quality.

All of this makes it strategically vital for operators to drive adoption of digital platforms in other industries, as well as to be perceived as advocates of green networking by helping their enterprise customers advance toward net zero emissions — and reduce their energy bills too. Leaner, cleaner and greener networks present a great opportunity for operators to demonstrate value and strengthen customer relationships.