The telecoms industry is responsible for 2-3% of the total power consumption of humankind. According to GSMA research, energy costs today represent between 20% and 40% of a telecoms company’s OPEX – a figure that is even higher in heavy-diesel-usage regions like Southeast Asia and Africa. It’s a trend that is likely to increase as 5G rollouts continue, as a typical 5G site requires up to 70% more power to operate versus a base station deploying a mix of 2G, 3G and 4G radios.
Pressure is on telcos to become greener, not just from a moral and ethical standpoint but from a commercial one, too. The GSMA report The Future of Mobile found that 73% of consumers adjust their buying behavior with the environment in mind. It’s a trend that now extends to their choice of telco: according to analysts Mason’s Connected Consumer Survey 2021, 46% of consumers in Europe and the U.S. consider the sustainability goals and green credentials of telecoms providers to be “important” or “essential” in their choice of provider. What areas can telcos focus on to drive greener outcomes?
1. Radio access network (RAN). The RAN takes up 70% of a telco’s energy consumption and is the largest source of electricity for mobile operators. So, it’s an obvious target for green improvements. Zero-touch provisioning can be a good start here, where cloud-native RAN equipment is upgraded, set up, and authenticated remotely. It helps save on truck rolls and the need for human workers to attend sites, reducing your carbon footprint. There are other potential ways forward, too: it’s been shown that simply turning off the power-amplifier symbol at a site can reduce energy consumption by over 7%. Deploying AI tools at sites can reduce RAN power consumption by 5-7%. Deploying Open RAN (O-RAN) can enable still further savings, with use cases showing that site power consumption for high-traffic scenarios can be reduced by 9% and by 12% in low-traffic scenarios with O-RAN in place.
2. Replacing copper lines with fiber. This one might seem obvious, but it’s an area where telcos can drive major improvements. To begin with, the industrial manufacturing process of copper mining inflicts environmental damage. The silicon dioxide used in fiber-optic-cable manufacturing is one of the most accessible and abundant materials to mine and collect. Furthermore, ABI Research reports that replacing copper lines with fiber improves energy efficiency by as much as 85%.
3. Transition to 5G. While mentioned earlier that 5G base-station sites use more energy than 3G and 4G ones, in the longer term, 5G is a positive, sustainable move that telcos can make. By sunsetting 3G and other legacy systems, telcos can drive a 15% reduction in energy consumption. Earlier this year, Orange announced plans to switch off its 2G and 3G networks in Europe within the next eight years. By 2030, Orange will be operating only 4G and 5G networks across Europe.
According to ABI Research, 5G can be up to 90% more energy-efficient than 4G. However, there is the caveat that telcos will need to optimize the hardware associated with next-generation networks to drive power consumption down and reduce costs. There is also the 5G-adjacent area of the new applications and use cases that 5G enables being heavier energy consumers themselves. Gartner reports that while 5G might be more energy-efficient per bit than 3G and 4G, increased use of things like streaming, AI and cloud services can drive up overall energy consumption. It means telcos still need to think about how to power and operate networks most efficiently to reduce emissions and drive sustainability.
4. Scope 3 emissions. Scope 3 emissions are not produced directly by a company itself but are generated up and down a value chain by partners and suppliers. It’s an area that telcos can improve by focusing on members of its business ecosystem and ensuring that existing and potential partners are as committed to sustainability goals as they are. Telcos can start this process at a simple level by insisting on a carbon neutrality record or proof of ESG commitments when requesting tenders.
5. Data centers. As with the RAN, AI plays a big part in helping reduce the industry’s energy usage and enhance overall sustainability in data centers’ energy usage. Power-hungry cloud deployments have seen data centers swallow up more and more energy, and telcos and other tech companies are deploying AI to manage energy efficiency in data centers more efficiently. Google, for example, has reported 30% energy savings using AI in its data centers. It’s gaining momentum: research by the GSMA found that 35% of telecoms network professionals expect AI optimization to be the most effective way of improving energy efficiency in their data centers.
A priority for progressive companies
There are many potential ways forward, but sustainability must become a de facto strategic business priority before it is too late. Orange has recognized this and acted on it: it is committed to net zero emissions by 2040 and improving its networks’ energy efficiency through its Green IT & Networks initiative. It also employs circular economy techniques, using reconditioned equipment in networks and data centers. Orange Business now gives a second life to over 50% of the routers it decommissions from customer premises, re-using them for new customers or reselling them. Dedication to sustainable operations has seen Orange ranked in the top 1% of eco-responsible companies by EcoVadis. It’s an approach that makes sense both ethically and commercially.
To read more about what Orange is doing to drive sustainability in our operations and how we can help you become a greener company, please visit: Our environmental and social responsibility.
I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.