Sustainability should be the next big priority for wireless technology

Most Europeans believe climate change poses the greatest existential threat. For some industries, this is cause for great concern as customers are becoming increasingly aware of the direct impact that businesses are having on the environment, says Diana Pani, senior director of wireless standards and innovation, InterDigital.

For example, David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet’ series shone a light on supermarkets and their over-reliance on plastic packaging and the profound environmental fall-out. For telecoms its impact is considerable, though not as visible, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to ignore it.

As we edge closer to the next generation of wireless technology, data consumption will increase, and with it, the power required to facilitate the movement of data. To realise its full potential, 5G deployment requires a more complex network with more powerful elements, Internet of Things (IoT) end nodes, and gateways.

Our research predicts the telecoms industry’s energy footprint is on course to grow to 51.3 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) per year in 2030, up from 19.8 Mtoe per year in 2020. If the energy required is not mitigated, the impact could implicate telecoms as a major polluter.

This isn’t to argue nothing has been done; many providers have taken steps to reduce their carbon footprint. 5G’s lean signalling design was intended to limit transmissions to only where there is data. Moreover, the 3GPP standards body has mainly concentrated sustainability efforts on UE power savings, which improves the overall power consumption in devices, but can sometimes be detrimental to network energy savings.

We have only recently begun to understand the important need for further network energy savings. As we take this important step in the evolution of 5G, the telecoms industry should lead by example and take a more active stance on sustainability.

The impact of 5G

5G is expected to add an additional 1.2 billion more mobile internet subscribers, bringing the world’s total to 5 billion, and a total of 24.6 billion IoT connections by 2025. The increase in subscribers, devices, and video traffic is expected to generate higher levels of energy consumption.

Our own research finds that by 2030 the 5G ecosystem will see energy requirements grow by 160%. While 5G is expected to deliver several benefits to industries worldwide, the telecoms sector must be wary of its environmental impact.

That impact won’t be limited to mobile devices either. As 5G opens the door to new technologies in the entertainment sector, such as virtual reality, energy demands placed on the network will grow. The popularity and ubiquity of streaming services is indicative of the appetite consumers have for video content.

Video viewing habits are already high and by 2022 it will account for 82% of all internet traffic. This will drive the desire to enhance the overall viewing experience. What consumers might not know is that the jump from 4K to 8K video doubles its electricity requirements. Telecoms providers should plan to mitigate this.

Creating a ‘standard’ for sustainability

3GPP has placed some emphasis on ‘power saving’ and ‘5G energy efficiency’. This represents an important shift from viewing energy savings through the lens of terminals and broadening the scope to a network-wide approach. Without standardised backing, it becomes difficult to implement sustainable policies.

Several 3GPP companies saw that 5G new radio base stations consume 3 to 4 times more energy than LTE. It is anticipated that network energy savings will play an important role in the development of 5G NR Advanced in forthcoming releases. To pursue sustainability, 3GPP should explore mechanisms that allow networks to respond to real-time traffic and UE distribution dynamically and more efficiently.

Diana Pani

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recently announced that it had agreed to include energy consumption in video and production standards. Findings show that the energy footprint of program production represent at least 12% of the total energy cost of a broadcast system.

In addition, ITU working parties have prioritised technologies that improve energy efficiency, mitigation consumption, and foster sustainable development in 6G road mapping. The ITU-R Working Party 5D (WP 5D) is also discussing a preliminary draft for Future Technology trends which will provide a broad view of future technical aspects of terrestrial international mobile telecommunication systems. As part of this work, technologies to improve energy efficiency, consumption and maintaining a sustainable development are considered important and are part of the 6G work

The world is only just starting to become aware of the benefits of 5G and what it has to offer. 5G is expected to further improve the average GDP for all countries due to the extended growth of mobile data traffic and network efficiency. However, its energy demands are growing. Environmental sustainability is a challenge for every industry, and while telecoms doesn’t represent the largest impact on the environment, it does have the opportunity to act proactively and put safeguards in place before it becomes part of the problem.

The author is Diana Pani, senior director of wireless standards and innovation, InterDigital

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_OR @jcIoTnow

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