Sustainability Versus The Digital Divide in 6G

November 21, 2022

Written by Caio Castro

Another United Nations Climate Change Conference is on the books. In the past two weeks, global leaders have joined and discussed the necessary steps to cut carbon emissions for sustainability – and take the world off the “highway to climate hell.”

Even though telecommunications have not been the main theme of the event, the sector does play a growing impact on the environment. According to a Boston Consulting Group study, ICT accounts for 3 to 4% of total carbon emissions today.

With data traffic from remote work and the Internet of Things only expected to go up, the company warns that this figure could reach 14% by 2040 at the current pace of growth.

Can we ensure the telco sector is a solution for the environment, and not a problem, by the time 6G comes around? Could 6G actually help with sustainability?

While the answer is partially speculative by now, the landscape seems positive. “In 6G, we have a unique opportunity to design a G with sustainability in mind,” said Paul Challoner, VP of Network Products at Ericsson, in a recent interview with 6GWorld.

“The first step is to create a set of KPIs for how we want to measure sustainability. It’s really around energy or kilowatt hours per gigabyte transferred; that’s the key metric. The type of things we can do are really working on the efficiency of the radio network,” he added.

The second part is developing solutions to switch the radio on and off depending on the usage. If there’s no data flowing, switch it off. “That’s actually quite a sophisticated technology. We’re using artificial intelligence and machine learning to power down the radio when it’s not being used, so that’s another big power saving,” Challoner explained.

There is a third step, however, that does not depend on futuristic advancements: using green energy for all cell sites and capabilities. Technologies currently available include solar power, wind power, and renewable energy.

The Footprint Figure

Research conducted by Yale University, MIT, and Purdue University in 2021 indicated that remote working and other forms of virtual interaction could generate 34.3 million tons in emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases in that year alone.

How so? Although we consume the internet in a virtual way – browsing social media, watching videos, reading 6G news – the infrastructure to enable 4G and 5G is very physical. Data centres, for just one example, need water to cool down equipment and electricity to keep the system running.

The study found that video streaming services like Netflix release 441g CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) per hour when used in high definition.

If all users decided to watch it in standard definition, emissions worldwide would decrease by the equivalent of 6% of the total monthly consumption of coal in the United States.

The problem is: does anyone want to binge-watch their favorite series in standard definition?

Maybe not, but the point, according to the researchers, is making the information available so that users can choose by themselves.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” said Kaveh Madani, one of the authors.

The Revival of Usage-Based Pricing?

Another solution for sustainability apparently going back on the table is a version of usage-based pricing. This business model was quite the standard in the 2G and 3G era but was sent into oblivion by flat rates for unlimited data.

Essentially the more you use, the more you pay. That approach could serve as a way to encourage people to consume less data, help cut emissions, and invigorate telcos’ revenues. Fair and simple, right?

Not so fast.

Even though operators seem to at least consider the idea, research indicate that the resurgence of this type of usage-based pricing model would likely take a stronger toll on low-income communities, adding a societal issue on top of the sustainability conundrum.  

According to Pew Research’s 2021 Mobile Fact Sheet, 27% of US respondents who make less than $30,000 yearly say they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. That figure makes low-income the most smartphone-dependent group for broadband services.

The high-income share, on the other side, sits at the bottom of the ranking, meaning they are the least dependent among the four groups.

In Brazil, the federal telecommunications agency Anatel recorded that there were 42.8 million broadband connections in September, while mobile internet accounted for 259 million connections in the same month, showing the importance of mobile connectivity in the country.

At the same time, a study made by professors Jeffrey Prince of Indiana University and Shane Greenstein of Harvard Business School proposed alternative ways to charge for mobile internet.

Among their findings is the fact that “with no constraints and no usage price, L [low-income] types would have more mobile usage than H [high-income] types.”

Finding a Solution

There are several questions still waiting for an answer as to the best way to solve the environmental issue. For the more optimistic readers, some good news: Telcos have started to contribute somehow.

According to GSMA’s 2022 Mobile Industry SDG Impact Report, 66% of operators (by connections) or 82% (by revenue) currently disclose their climate impacts.

On the negative side, just 44% (by connections) and 63% (by revenue) have committed to science-based targets. And an even lower share – 34% (by connections) and 44% (by revenue) – are aligned to the UN Race to Zero pledge.

“The majority of commitments are for 2050, implying the need for CO2 reductions of 50% in each successive decade until then. Some groups have set even more ambitious targets, enabled by a rapid substitution of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels,” the report reads.

The report also seems to point to well-known direction as a way out of the environmental mess. “To accelerate progress, supportive regulatory and policy environments are needed to de-risk and attract investment into renewables.

“As climate change threatens to deepen inequalities between rich and poorer countries, global action from all sectors and governments is required to keep the global temperature rise to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise even further to 1.5°C.”

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