Telecoms Industry Gets Serious About Building Sustainable Networks

December 9, 2020

Written by Alex Lawrence

In the past year, politicians from Xi Jinping to Joe Biden and the EC’s Ursula von der Leyen have announced major long-term decarbonisation policies, in line with aspirations to keep climate change within habitable limits. The telecoms industry is on the front lines, both because connectivity will be essential to deliver the efficiencies needed in many industries and also because the increasing ubiquity of network infrastructure, datacentres and devices itself poses a challenge to decarbonisation. However, in recent weeks, several new initiatives that could drastically reduce the environmental impact of the telecoms industry have been launched. 

Strikingly, while the GSMA has benchmarked industry progress against the Sustainable Development Goals since 2016 and committed telecom operators to become carbon neutral by 2050, both recent initiatives complement this top-down approach with grassroots programmes. 6GWorld recently had the opportunity to speak to Ana Maria Galindo, organising the NGMN’s new Green Future Networks project, and Roya Stephens, who leads InterDigital’s new industry sustainability initiative, to peer behind the headlines.  

Orange is the New Green 

“My work at Orange contributes to an internal project called Green ITN, which goes from datacentres to transport and radio networks,” Galindo began, explaining how she came to lead the NGMN activity. “Orange Group has an internal target to be carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the GSMA recommendations. We also have intermediate targets; by 2025 we need to use 50% renewable energy and reduce the CO2 emissions by 30%. But for, say, Orange Poland, where the energy is produced by coal, it will be important to have more than 50% because this means we will drastically reduce CO2 emissions.” 

She also explained some of the questions around scope that both the NGMN and Orange are facing. Their most widely-used accounting tool, the GreenHouse Gas (GHG) protocol, considers three “scopes”.  Scope One covers direct emissions from the company or its sources, such as fleets of vehicles or infrastructure. Scope Two covers indirect emissions from the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating, and cooling consumed by the company. Scope Three includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. 

“So if you consider the end-to-end CO2 footprint you should also consider the manufacturing of mobile phones, tablets, or PCs; the fabrication of servers; what happens at end-of-life etc. But we operators could also say ‘that’s not our activity’ and we just count the electricity consumed by the network. With the NGMN project we would like to improve how each actor of the telecom chain contributes and takes its part of responsibility for making networks more sustainable.” 

Support for Sustainable Networks 

“Sustainability really isn’t something the industry can ignore, from a business or moral perspective,” Stephens said, discussing the thinking behind InterDigital’s initiative. “We started some sustainability research, and it unveiled the way that different parts of the telecoms industry are at different stages of development and defining sustainability differently. So, as an R&D-based organisation, there is a space for us to look more holistically at what the industry’s energy footprint actually is and developing what the KPIs should be for innovative technologies.”  

The initiative goes beyond R&D, though, and beyond one company, Stephens explained: “How do we make engineers and researchers, manufacturers and operators more aware of that energy footprint, and how do we get to a place where consumers are also more aware of their energy footprint and are able to make more sustainable choices? We can only do this as a broad collaboration.” 

There are good reasons for optimism about collaboration. The NGMN’s Green Future Networks project is still in its infancy but reflects the industry’s changing set of values.  

“It was inspired by the NGMN 5G White Paper Version Two. It’s 30 pages long and has a two-page chapter on sustainability aspects,” Galindo explained, underlining that the drive for the project was a strategic decision of the NGMN Board. “People were very excited about it and there was a push for a dedicated programme. So we need to take these two pages’ work as a base and go further in depth, much further.” 

The initial group participating in the NGMN’s project is diverse, reflecting not only the interest in the issue but also representing much of the value chain.  

“We have a large number of project participants representing mobile network operators; vendors; universities and research centres; and OTT service providers,” She said. “By bringing this community together, we can achieve impactful guidance to the industry where each individual party can take responsibility for the elements it controls.” 

“For example, for an operator accounting for CO2 at Scope Three, it includes the CO2 or energy consumed to extract raw materials, transform them into equipment, and transport the equipment to us. If vendors take responsibility for using renewable energy, compensating for CO2, using recycled materials to produce new equipment, and so on, then the problem’s solved. The operators’ Scope Three is the vendors’ Scope One or Two, you see? So, if each part of the chain takes its responsibility seriously, it will work.” 

The Hard Work Begins 

Stephens described the initial research that has stimulated their initiative: “We’ve focused our research to look at different vectors in the technology ecosystem,” she explained, “One white paper with ABI looks at the sustainability of 5G networks. Another white paper in collaboration with Futuresource looks at the sustainability of the future video ecosystem, all the way from the production of content to its delivery and consumption by consumers. 

“The third with Mobile World Live surveyed their members across the telecoms industry, for two reasons. We wanted to get a sense of their sentiment towards sustainability. We also wanted to see who is leading initiatives to encourage more energy-consciousness – whether it’s governments or industry – and comparing how respondents differed regionally.”  

For the NGMN, the project scope is still being finalised, according to Galindo. “We’re still in the early alignment phase, but we are pushing a lot of interesting contributions and several of them are new for the telecommunications ecosystem.”  

The project is likely to fall under four broad areas of activity. The first is the traditional network energy efficiency.  

“There we will be working on multiple energy efficiency techniques, including how to use AI to reduce energy consumption,” Galindo said. “There are also interesting contributions we hope to receive on the impact of AI algorithms in terms of efficiency, because some AI methodologies can be quite energy-intensive. We want to look at that trade-off.” 

The second area Galindo considers familiar territory for the telecoms industry is onboard energy metering of network components.  

“This is already happening for servers but we want to have metering for all radio equipment at the component level,” she said. “This will allow us, as operators, to have a more concrete view of the energy-intensive parts of the equipment and therefore allow us to apply some optimisation.  

“It’s quite a delicate issue because of course manufacturers don’t want to open up their equipment to us. What we need are some [Application Programming Interfaces] or administrative permissions for access to the equipment’s energy-related data. So, this is the kind of conversation we need to have, along with exploring some KPIs for how to evaluate this information and then optimise.”  

Terra Incognita 

The ambition of the NGMN project reaches out into very unfamiliar areas for the operators. Their plans to explore eco-friendly design, if adopted, could have some wide-ranging ramifications.  

“We want to bring together manufacturers to discuss how we can improve designs from the beginning, to reduce equipment wastage,” Galindo explained. “For example, the majority of equipment breakages are the plastic cases, and screens also break very easily, so these should be very accessible and should be very easy to replace straight away rather than replace the whole equipment, but we would actually like to go a step further and improve what happens once the equipment reaches end-of-life. Being able to separate the different layers that we have in printed cards, for example, and extract and recycle the different rare earths. All this can be improved if you take these aspects into account from the first concepts for your equipment.” 

Finally, the NGMN will investigate the end-to-end service footprint. “How can we measure the energy footprint and carbon footprint when, for example, you watch a video on your mobile phone?” Galindo asked.  

Having OTTs on board is a key part of the content question, in her eyes, as they not only carry the content itself but have a vital part to play in the user’s experience  

“If you’re reading an article, you don’t just get that content. There is also advertising. And we are transporting that without control of the quality,” she said.  

How can they reconcile the different pressures from user, stakeholders, and environment? “We are looking forward to initial discussions with all stakeholders.” 

Greenwash? 

There is cynicism about corporate or industry initiatives around decarbonisation or sustainability. Stephens said we’re not yet in a position to know whether investing in sustainability activities can lead to business strategies that shareholders would support.  

From the InterDigital side, “Some of the work our engineers are doing in standards development is about building in new KPIs to reduce energy consumption or carbon footprint, very much at that foundational level. So at the very least everyone can start to pay more attention to what the energy footprint actually is and then, where they can, find solutions to reduce it.” 

Galindo also views levels of interest and knowledge as critical to making pragmatic changes in the industry, offering an example from Orange Group.  

“We use raw materials that are becoming more and more rare, and we know they will run out at some time,” she said. “So, in our Requests For Proposals [RFPs] we include some questions about circular economy, asking ‘How long will the equipment last? Can we repair it or can you repair it for us?’ In the past we were using these indicators as a nice-to-have on top of performance, but now they are taken into account as much as the performance indicators.  

“We expect this will create a whole new opportunity for competition within the vendor community.” 

Today, while energy reduction or other approaches may yield business benefits, Stephens said: “Our research seems to support the idea that sustainability itself isn’t the driver of these new solutions. I think that maybe from this research we’ll see how sustainability can create impetus for new solutions, but I don’t think we’re quite there yet. We need to quantify our carbon or energy impact and that will help quantify the scale of the opportunity.” 

Ultimately, what unites these initiatives with Xi, Biden, and von der Leyen is a mindset. Galindo summed it up: “This is the most important part, especially in big companies – to make people understand that we’re not doing this as an option. We don’t have an option. If we want to continue to exist, we simply have to change how we do things.” 

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