Guest Post: A Sustainable Roadmap to 6G

September 25, 2023

Written by 6GWorld Contributor

Andy Mclean, Corporate Vice President of Communications & Cloud, Analog Devices

The telecoms industry is battling to ensure enhanced connectivity doesn’t eclipse carbon reduction efforts. Emissions are set to skyrocket as global network traffic continues to swell. Networks and data centres already contribute 2-3% of global carbon emission and this share could reach 14% in the next two decades. Telcos need to evaluate network designs, and operations, adopting smart, sustainable strategies to modernize systems as the next generation of mobile network technology draws closer. 

6G is an opportunity to integrate sustainability considerations into networks from the outset, and drive sustainable use cases in various sectors it connects. However, telcos must be vigilant, respecting 6G’s higher energy usage and the life cycle impact upgrading networks will have, thinking about how to limit and balance the scales now. Let’s look at what the “green brick road” to 6G could look like.

Using more green energy

Transitioning to renewable energy offers part of the solution. Leading telcos like AT&T, one of the largest US corporate renewable energy customers, and BT, who already power all of their networks and buildings with renewable energy, have made significant strides here.

Despite being an obvious remedy, the adoption rate of renewable energy still varies globally due to infrastructural and economic challenges. Supplies are increasing but energy prices are following suit. What’s more, solar and wind are heavily reliant on the weather, offering only intermittent power. Businesses are securing long-term supplies through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) and on-site solar and wind power generation to boost supplies. As the global energy landscape shifts to greener supplies over the next decade, businesses who establish strong relationships with renewable energy providers now, will be in a stronger position to hit net-zero goals by the time 6G is rolled out. 

Increasing network efficiency

Telcos also need to address energy consumption within networks. Semiconductors play a key role in bringing down the energy appetite. Analog Devices’ (ADI) 5G semiconductor technologies enable multiple tools which significantly reduce energy consumption in the Radio Unit.  While these solutions are widely used across Radio Access Network (RAN), and power consumption has improved with 5G, it still makes up over half of total 5G network consumption. 6G could be worse if rising data demand isn’t balanced by increasing RAN efficiency. In designing next generation technology for 6G, reducing Radio Unit energy consumption is a core metric for ADI and other companies working within the telecoms industry. With chips integrating more heat-efficient materials and smaller system-on-chip designs, the telco ecosystem must continue to work closely with semiconductor companies to invest in and fuel the next generation of more efficient network equipment.

More advanced semiconductors are powering a new wave of more energy efficient radio and core network architectures. AI-based networks, new protocols, and service automation can minimize unused resources, providing connectivity to end users where and when it’s needed. With 6G, this focus will drive further innovation within the RAN to introduce more dynamic power management, as well as offer real-time data on energy consumption, an essential for rapid prototyping and energy efficiency innovation.

Virtualization: The new frontier

The virtualized nature of 6G offers a way to upgrade the RAN further without adding carbon intensive, specialized hardware. The shift from custom hardware to software-enabled solutions on general-purpose hardware allows for more rapid feature development and deployment, setting the stage for 6G’s agility. Virtualized 6G networks will also be inherently open, providing greater vendor diversity and the ability to be upgraded by software. Importantly, a more software-defined network will introduce the need to measure the impact of software on energy consumption. We have already seen interest build in this space with the start of the Green Software Foundation and expect more software vendors to investigate potential for innovation here. 

With much of mobile network functionality transitioning to data centers, their environmental impact is under scrutiny. Telcos will need to keep a close eye on power consumption within data centres and lean on technologies like AI, geothermal temperature regulation and liquid immersion cooling to monitor and optimize it. In parallel, strategies like grid-interactive Battery Energy Storage Systems (BESS), renewable energy backup generators, and advanced cooling techniques can significantly reduce their carbon footprint.

The bigger picture

Outside of operations, scope 3 emissions account for the lion’s share of telecom emissions and require urgent attention. Collaborative initiatives like the Joint Alliance for CSR (JAC) that call on companies to address emissions emphasize the importance of industry-wide accountability. 6G can be a fresh start where telcos can work with suppliers from the outset to take action and create a more sustainable culture across the business value chain. This means putting procurement processes under the microscope and examining devices and their environmental impacts from production to end-of-life. Honesty and transparency are critical here to realize the true impact of scope 3 emissions and implement effective strategies that will ensure 6G equipment has a greener tag.

Profit remains a primary motivator for businesses and energy-saving can bolster commercial success for telcos. The GSMA estimates that a 20% reduction in power costs translates to as much as a 4% reduction in opex. As we stand on the cusp of the 6G revolution, the telecoms industry has a golden opportunity to not just innovate, but to do so responsibly. Let’s ensure that our pursuit of unparalleled connectivity is matched by an unwavering commitment to a greener, more sustainable future. The road to 6G is not just about speed and efficiency; it’s about forging a path that respects our planet.

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