Why we need sustainable solutions for the planet in the 5G era

Aron Heller, lead writer and editor at Nokia Cloud and Network Services.
(Image credit: Future)

The telecom industry has had a long reputation of being wasteful. But as climate change continues to worsen, sustainability has become a major corporate driving force with companies investing heavily in boosting productivity without further taxing the planet.

Judging by revenue, more than a third of the mobile industry has already credibly committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 or before.

Whether it’s deploying an IoT network grid to help farmers more efficiently produce yields from their crops, using artificial intelligence to reduce costs and industrial emissions or installing private wireless networks and automating mines to lower carbon footprints, various solutions are being pioneered globally to push forward advanced technologies that aim to alleviate damage to our warming planet.

Sustainability can't be an afterthought

It comes as no surprise that this push coincides with the emergence of 5G technology, which was designed to be more efficient than previous generations. Some might even argue that the big selling point of 5G is that it could give stakeholders in the wireless communications industry a path to sustainability. 

The results have been mixed. In practice, this revolution has also introduced a whole new set of sustainability challenges. The telecom industry already consumes around 1 percent of all global energy, according to Omdia. And worse, if all were to remain the same, the expected increase in data traffic and infrastructure accompanying the 5G era could double or triple that figure.

That’s why reducing operational expenses, and the accompanying environmental costs, has become such a sustainability spur for telecom companies.

"OPEX rates ranging from 20-40 percent are not uncommon in the telecom industry."

Aron Heller, Nokia.

Energy consumption has traditionally been among a company’s highest operating costs. For example, OPEX rates ranging from 20-40 percent are not uncommon in the telecom industry. Additionally, such OPEX rates are increasingly likely to be seen across the board, particularly as more operators introduce automation capabilities into their network to lower human dependency and the cost of operations. That being said, reducing this figure — and seeking renewable energy sources — makes good business sense and also aligns with the ideological push of the times for greater sustainability.

Using tech to get a step closer to sustainability

One such solution involves using AI to counter some of the overall spikes in energy consumption. For example, AI can redirect antennas and switch off network elements during low traffic to conserve energy without impacting end users. AI can also recognize when passive elements, such as batteries and air-conditioning, consume too much energy and should be re-configured or replaced. As a result, an AI-infused platform can enable operators to save up to a total of 20 percent in annual operating expenses as well as significantly cut CO2 emissions.

Another by-product of the 5G era is that it will require a 73% increase in the number of base stations by 2025, as operators will go beyond just connecting people and include things such as factories, stadiums, cars and more. 

As a result, more efficient 5G equipment is critical to balance the increase in 5G network energy consumption. For example, operators can implement 5G liquid-cooled base stations to reduce potential CO2 emissions by approximately 80 percent and operational costs by 30 percent. 

Advanced sleep mode features will also help optimize base station energy usage. Despite all the growing concerns, 5G is still far greener than its predecessor, with more data bits per kilowatt of energy than any previous wireless technology generation. The issue is the rise in data consumption, so the key is to make sure the energy consumed does not rise at the same rate.

Going green with initiatives

When it comes to handsets, a group of European network operators has now also introduced a pan-industry labelling scheme to help consumers identify and compare sustainability among mobile devices, as well as encourage suppliers to reduce the overall environmental impact of their devices. This is one such example of green and sustainable initiatives being introduced within the industry. Ideally, we will continue to see more network operators commit to going green by launching similar initiatives or participating in sustainability coalitions. 

"By 2050, it is predicted that climate change could cut agricultural production by up to 18 percent."

Aron Heller, Nokia.

When it comes to agriculture, 5G connectivity looks to feature prominently in providing resource efficiency as humanity prepares to feed an expected world population of more than nine billion people in 2050. Doing so will require a 70 percent increase in overall food production, and that’s not the only challenge. By 2050, it is predicted that climate change could cut agricultural production by up to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the sector itself is under pressure to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the urban sprawl is eating up arable land, further pressuring farmers to increase productivity.

One way that operators can bring value to the agricultural industry is through a smart agriculture as-a-service offering — such as the joint project between Nokia and Vodafone Foundation India to provide soy and cotton farmers with precise data, so that they can predict potential threats, prevent infestation and minimize the risks of yield loss.

Transforming industries with connectivity

Another offshoot is the rise in private wireless networks, which provide the next-generation connectivity required to operate Industry 4.0 applications and offer a potential source of energy-saving as well.

Private wireless solutions around the world have used renewables and microgrids to reduce dependence on power grids and reduce carbon emissions associated with grid electricity production. There are also use cases where private wireless powered drones have detected algae patterns and warned when the warming water temperatures were creating toxic algae growth. Sensors have created real-time environmental data that reports on noise, wind, dust, air quality, potential sandstorms and hazardous gases.

Perhaps the greatest benefit has come in mining, where advances in electrification, automation, environmental monitoring, and the use of renewable energy has created a more sustainable mineral industry.

So, whether it is through implementing innovative technologies such as AI and liquid-cooling, introducing sustainable initiatives and services or deploying next-generation connectivity such as 5G and private wireless, it is evident that the telecommunications industry has a plethora of options to become more sustainable. Thus, it is imperative that operators and service providers begin moving to more sustainable models so that they can reduce their OPEX as well as take a step forward in helping save our planet.

Aron Heller

Aron Heller is the lead writer and editor for Nokia’s Cloud and Network Services, where he tells the story of technology and the people behind it. He was previously the long-time Jerusalem correspondent for The Associated Press and an adjunct journalism professor and sports broadcaster. Aron has covered ten Israeli elections, four Mideast wars, dozens of other major world events and has been dispatched on assignments across five continents.