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Consumer pressure regarding sustainability in the telco sector has been focused, until relatively recently, on handsets rather than networks. A similar pressure has been on host providers such as AWS and Goggle. Things are changing though. Consumers (and investors) are finally beginning to look more closely at the green credentials of network operators, their infrastructure, and operations.
MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) are not blind to this shift in focus. According to the GSMA’s 2021 Mobile Industry Impact Report on Sustainability, at the end of 2020, 69% of operators (by connections) had disclosed their climate impact, and 31% of operators had set carbon reduction targets of achieving net-zero by 2050 or earlier.
These ambitious sustainability targets are balanced against ongoing ambitious targets for growth and focus on the bottom line, which for most MNOs includes the imminent and widespread deployment of 5G networks. However, according to technology analyst ABI Research, 5G could increase operators’ power consumption by as much as 61 times between 2020 to 2030, with more complex networks, more powerful network elements, and more traffic all contributing to this surge in demand.
With soaring energy costs, bringing power consumption into ever sharper focus, operators are faced with an indisputable business need to address how they design, optimize and power these new 5G networks – so much so in fact, that operators are now publicly cautioning that increased energy costs could cause 5G investment to be delayed.
But what practical and tangible steps can they take now to ensure 5G deployments are made with a view to sustainability and green credentials?
1. Buy renewable energy
An attractive and obvious short-cut on the route to sustainability for many MNOs is pledging to buy renewable energy. Indeed, a growing number of MNOs and other large power-hungry organizations are already looking at renewables. For instance, Vodafone is targeting net-zero across all of its operations by 2030, and has committed to purchasing 100% of its electricity from fully renewable sources.
Power consumption for Vodafone and other operators leading the renewable charge, such as Verizon and AT&T, is going up as a result of 5G but, with this move, their overall carbon footprints will be stepping in the opposite direction. This transition will further the cause of renewable energy providers - helping them to build scale and lower the cost of renewables for all.
Buying ‘green’ energy is a great first step, but is only one piece of the puzzle. There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the reliability, scalability and long-term cost of renewable energy, and operators cannot afford to put all of their eggs in one basket.
2. Focus on the plan
“Fail to plan, plan to fail,” or so the saying goes. Network planning is more important today than ever. MNOs will spend $1.1 trillion on CAPEX between 2020 and 2025, with more than three quarters of it 5G-related according to the GSMA.
The complexity and CAPEX cost of 5G roll-out makes accuracy even more important than ever. Where and when are the 5G services required most? What new infrastructure will be required, and what can be overlaid with 5G?
Recent research by Mobile Experts calculated that an improvement in RAN planning accuracy can increase an operator’s capacity by as much as 24%, without any increase in the number of radios or antennas. This not only enables operators to defer capacity investments (which in itself could save a nationwide US mobile operator $2 billion over a 10-year period), but it means they can get more out of the 5G infrastructure they already have.
The new business models and revenue streams that are opened up by 5G mean network planning can no longer siloed from the business. New ways of working, where tech and business teams work together, off the same data, to make smarter decisions not only makes for smarter CAPEX decision-making and optimized return of investment by ensuring the right infrastructure is deployed in the right place. It also means they can also save on the carbon footprint of unnecessary macro and small cells when delivering a 5G experience that will still deliver a compelling customer experience. Smarter planning and optimized networks are both good business and eco-sense.
3. Embrace AI
According to a GSMAi-Nokia survey, 78% of communication service providers see AI as very or extremely effective at delivering energy-efficiency improvements. Indeed, it’s already being cited in operators’ annual reports as a key tool in their armory for optimizing their energy use.
Data-powered efficient energy management will play an important role in 5G network operations. Management is applied to the entire network, including energy transmission from the supplier, the base station sites themselves e.g. cooling, heating and lighting, the power supplies for network elements and mobile data transmission. According to Nokia, AI-based energy management automation can reduce energy costs and carbon footprint by 30% with no negative impact on performance or end customer experience.
AI also enables operators to streamline and optimize outdated processes. Take drive-testing, that unglamorous but nevertheless critical routine of physically driving around the network and testing that the experience being promised is the one being delivered. Big network vendors like Nokia are now using AI-driven technology to predict where to drive and what tests to perform, removing trial and error and saving unnecessary driving and pollution. It also significantly impacts the time to market and efficiency of their network deployments, accelerating 5G roll-outs and helping operators reduce their time to revenue. Once again, the drive towards net-zero and an improved ROI go hand-in-hand.
4. Sail towards the sunset!
The pace of roll-out of 5G networks is accelerating, and with it comes the ability to sunset older, more inefficient technologies. According to the latest information collected by the GSA about the switch-off of 2G and 3G around the world, more than 135 operators have already either completed, planned or are in progress with 2G and 3G technology transitions in 68 countries and territories.
With this comes a further sustainability dividend. Not only are operators spared from having to power multiple networks across multiple iterations of technology, but they can sunset networks which are, by today’s modern standards, power hungry. In many cases 3G networks can be as much as 70% less energy efficient than 4G equivalents, meaning there are significant financial and environmental savings to be made in their removal.
Sustainability is a business imperative
What’s clear is that sustainability has very real business drivers – customers demand it, investors expect it, and the costs of failing to build a net-zero business make it a business imperative.
New technologies such as 5G offer new opportunities for operators to shed their legacy networks and ways of working, replacing them with more efficient, cost effective and greener 5G network infrastructure.
The ROI is significant – more efficient energy consumption means lower power bills; more accurate planning translates into CAPEX and OPEX savings and happier customers with lower churn; and modern ways of working, with AI-driven processes, mean not just better decision-making, but being able to optimize the whole value chain and share the net-zero benefits more widely.