Marek’s Take: The greening of the Gs

Marek's take

Many years ago, I wrote about solar-powered cell sites being used in mobile networks. At that time, the wireless industry was in the early stages of thinking about “green” technologies and those solar-powered cell sites were primarily intended for developing the countries where there was no established electrical grid.  

Today green business practices are an integral part of the wireless industry. Not only is it good for the environment but it’s also good for business. Companies that are considered “green” or committed to energy-saving initiatives are popular with consumers and with investors.

Many operators around the globe are starting to work toward becoming more sustainable and reducing their energy usage. According to the GSMA’s 2021 Mobile Industry Impact Report on Sustainability, about 31% of operators by connections worldwide and 36% of operators by revenue worldwide have set carbon reduction targets to be net zero by 2050.   

In the U.S., Verizon and AT&T have said they will be carbon neutral across their entire operations by 2035. And Verizon in 2021 launched a $1 billion green bond that will be used for its sustainability efforts.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, set a goal of using 100% renewable energy by the end of 2021 and earlier in the year it reported it had nearly met that goal. The company is currently in the process of auditing all of its work in that area. T-Mobile also has a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95%.  

And those solar-powered cell sites that I remember writing about 20 years ago are now just one of many technological advancements that can make networks more efficient and reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

5G is a step in the right direction

Just upgrading networks from 4G to 5G is a big step toward making wireless networks more energy efficient. According to the November 2021 Ericsson Mobility Report, mobile traffic has grown dramatically over the past 10 years but service providers’ global network energy consumption has only increased 64%. Ericsson attributes this to improvements in technology that makes it possible for the industry to only marginally increase its energy consumption despite the huge increase in data traffic.

Patrik Lundqvist, senior director of technical marketing at Qualcomm, agrees that 5G is inherently more efficient than 4G. “The energy per bit sent is a big improvement in 5G,” he said. “And that efficiency itself is creating savings for the environment.”

Reducing energy costs is not only good for the environment, it’s also good for the bottom line. Bhushan Joshi, head of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson North America, says that about 30% of a mobile operator’s operating expenses are devoted to paying for the energy costs of running a network.

In a typical urban setting, Joshi said that about 30% of cell sites drive about 75% of the traffic. That means that if operators upgrade their urban base stations to the more energy efficient 5G equipment, they can reduce their energy costs.

And in rural areas where 70% of the cell sites drive about 25% of the traffic, operators also can benefit from upgrading those sites, particularly as the industry becomes more adept at powering down cell sites when they aren’t in use.

Researchers at Ericsson noted in the company’s latest Mobility Report that during gaps in data transmissions, wireless operators can reduce power consumption by putting certain components into “sleep mode” and then activating those components when data transmissions are high. These sleep mode gaps are very short in the 4G standard.  However, with the 5G New Radio standard this sleep mode feature is better supported because the base stations have been designed specifically for it.

Qualcomm’s Lundqvist said that amplifiers and base stations are two of the biggest consumers of energy in the network and base stations alone account for about 50% of the energy used to power a network. Qualcomm, not surprisingly, is working to make amplifiers and base stations more energy efficient.

Lundqvist also said that edge networking (which is a big part of 5G) also creates energy savings because as more network intelligence is pushed to the edge, it not only makes the network more efficient, it also saves on power throughout the network.

Not surprisingly, the 3GPP standards body is getting involved in the efforts to make mobile networks more sustainable and making green networks a part of its future standards. In fact, Release 18, which is referred to as 5G Advanced, makes green networks a priority.

Although work on Release 18 is just getting under way, the 3GPP has said that as part of this release, it will define a base station energy consumption model as well provide power consumption reduction techniques. In addition, it will incorporate energy consumption into various deployment scenarios, including sub-7 GHz spectrum and both urban and rural deployments.

Not only is 3GPP looking at making mobile networks greener, ATIS’ Next G Alliance is also working on what is it calling the “Green G,” which is an effort to establish North America as a leader in 6G and also a leader in reducing 6G’s environmental impact.   

Green G is a catchy slogan and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about how the telecom industry can not only reduce its carbon footprint, but also how technologies such as 5G and 6G can help other industries also reduce their environmental impact as well.