In a keynote panel at Total Telecom’s Gigabit Access event, panellists discussed the rising importance of sustainability in network infrastructure and the key technologies and strategies that can really make a difference

When it comes to sustainability, the telecoms industry faces a major challenge. As the world becomes more connected and data consumption increases, so too will power consumption and emissions, potentially making the industry a major contributor to the climate crisis.

To emphasise this point, Vincent Garnier, Director General of the FTTH Council Europe, shared data from a thinktank called The Shift Project, which estimates that 4% of global carbon emissions currently come from the ICT ecosystem.

“But the trend is upward,” explained Garnier. “Estimations of the current speed of the ICT industry is that it could reach 8–9% by 2025. For reference, 4% is around the same global emissions as the aviation industry, while 9% is the same as all cars. So, this is not a small problem!”

He noted that 15% of these emissions came from the network itself, 20% came from datacentres, but around two-thirds of the total emissions were linked to the devices themselves, both their manufacturing and usage.

This is a challenge that has the potential to grow out of control.

“It’s not necessarily the case that when data speeds increase power also needs to increase at the same rate,” said Filip De Greve, Product Marketing Director, Fixed Networks at Nokia, noting how the shift from older systems, like copper, can result in reduced power consumption. “However, data rates will keep increasing so the objective is to be more efficient. If we could keep the power consumption stable as data rates increase, that would already be a great achievement.”

Nonetheless, new technologies can in fact go further, aiming for an absolute reduction of energy consumption, and operators are becoming increasingly conscious of just how important this may be.

“But we do see a change,” said De Greve. “In the RFPs that we see, we see a clear trend to ask about science-based targets, about transparency on renewable energy usage and on your CO2 footprint. Another one we see is the importance of adherence to energy consumption levels as set by the European Commission. This is important since it leads to the comparison of these different technologies but also discussions around how they could reduce their power consumption in absolute numbers year over year.”

Part of the issue here in getting to grips with this problem is the numerous methodologies that are used to measure a company’s environmental impact, meaning it is often difficult to accurately assess at an industry-wide level.

“When I speak to CTOs, people are frustrated that when they produce a number for their company, they struggle to compare it to somebody else’s,” explained Alessandro Gropelli, Board Member, GeSi & Deputy Director General at ETNO. “Developing this [universal] tool will be the first building block towards taking action because you have clear KPIs.”

But while the telecoms industry itself is charging ahead with climate neutrality plans and energy reductions, it should be remembered that it is not only through the network technology itself that telcos can help to build a more sustainable world. In fact, their biggest impact may be in the ways that they can impact enterprises and facilitate their customers’ sustainability drives. From 5G to fibre, the telecoms industry is set to have a huge impact on the sustainability of Industry 4.0.

“As an industry, we can look at it as both greening of and greening by our networks,” said Gropelli.

Technological innovation, of course, will be the heart of the telecoms industry’s green transformation. But another, perhaps more nuanced factor, is the industry’s approach to cooperation and collaboration.

Take network sharing, for example. It is clear that the sharing of networks can help to reduce capex and opex, prevent overbuild, and is ultimately a far greener approach to expanding network coverage than simply building more sites. Nonetheless, some operators are reluctant to commit to this approach, arguing that they lose autonomy over their network, presenting issues when it comes to things like long-term site evolution and debugging issues.

But for Yogesh Malik, CTIO at Tele2, the issue really comes down to a ubiquitous corporate mindset whereby sharing feels a lot like losing.

“We are at the cusp where we need to make sure that our mindset is not possessive but progressive,” he said. “The more that we can start believing that we are not compromising by network sharing, that we are putting the customer first, we will begin to take responsibility for our climate.”

Creating a greener telecoms industry is going to be a major challenge for many years to come, but the panellists here seemed hopeful of the industry’s future success provided we harness new technologies quickly and begin to take a more collaborative approach to emissions reduction.


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