Cellular service providers (CSPs), infrastructure manufacturers, hyperscalers, and other industry stakeholders met last week during the Mobile World Congress (MWC) to discuss the mobile industry’s challenges, opportunities, and benefits — including those regarding sustainability.
The rollout of the fifth generation of cellular communications (5G) continues, and the industry forecasts that over 1.6 billion devices will connect to 5G networks this year. The GSMA estimates that CSPs will spend $1.5 trillion from 2023 to 2030 on new infrastructure, 92 percent on building and upgrading 5G networks which, by 2030, will connect over 5 billion devices.
Building, maintaining, and upgrading all the infrastructure required for those networks to operate requires an enormous exercise of sourcing materials and components and managing complicated logistics and operations.
Unless manufacturers radically transform how they source and extract materials and how they deliver their products, it is impossible to cut emissions meaningfully.
Unfortunately, the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector is not precisely known for sustainability best practices. Only 8.6 percent of the global economy, including the ICT sector, is circular, which means less than 10 percent of the material used in a year is recycled or reused in some way, and over 70 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions are related to material handling and use. The current energy crisis, significantly affecting Europe, has been a wake-up call for optimizing operations and resources to reduce power consumption and new materials.
Now, many network operators and vendors are ensuring that the energy used is obtained from renewable sources. In doing so, it diminishes the impact of network rollouts and operations on the environment.
Optimizing current operations to reduce energy consumption is good, but more is needed to address the power usage and carbon footprint of deploying new infrastructure.
Open RAN can optimize resources and reduce carbon footprint
Open RAN has long been a topic of discussion within the telecommunications industry, with the O-RAN Alliance driving network openness principles. And vRAN (Virtualized Radio Access Network) technology is essential to enabling Open RAN architecture, promoting open and flexible network design.
One of the fundamental factors fueling the adoption of vRAN is the programmability of 5G networks. The 5G New Radio is specifically designed for cloud-based management and operation. Now, companies such as VMware, Arm, Intel, AWS, Google, IBM, Microsoft and many others are entering the cellular infrastructure and operations market with innovative products to improve network efficiency and sustainability.
“We have been on a journey of virtualizing the network. We, at some point, looked at what was happening in the network and what was needed for the future, given the amount of data, and we started this journey of virtualizing the network end-to-end. And we started at the core,” Cristina Rodríguez, vice president and general manager of the Wireless Access Network Division at Intel, told EPSNews during MWC. “We have seen the benefit of that already. This year, Deloitte predicts that core virtualization will cross the 90 percent mark.”
“We built an architecture based on a fully programmable, flexible, general-purpose processor with integrated acceleration for the most demanding parts of the workload. And, we are delivering up to twice the capacity within the same power envelope that the previous generation,” she added.
Mohamed Awad, SVP and general manager of Infrastructure at Arm, agrees that power efficiency is one of the key drivers of improving cellular and data center infrastructure.
“We’ve got sustainability and energy challenges which are just getting more difficult,” said Awad in an interview. “You know, four years ago, there were under a million 5G connections. Today there are over a billion. Each one of those has ten times the bandwidth that a 4G connection has. I was looking at data that says that about three percent of the world’s energy is consumed by [ITC] infrastructure today. Some areas of London are talking about not building any new housing because the data centers are consuming too much energy.”
“I think the promise of Open RAN is genuine. We’re working with many telco operators, specifically on Open RAN. One of the primary drivers for Open RAN is choice. It’s the idea of having choice and flexibility in the offering, and that’s really at the heart of what Arm has always been about,” Awad said. “We’re working with almost all of the Open RAN partners you could imagine. I think the flip side is vRAN, a precursor to Open RAN.”
Additionally, a lot more processing is now happening at the edge to reduce data traffic and enable flexible operations. New 5G networks and private cellular operations feature powerful gateways that can manage cell allocation, improve efficiency, and analyze data traffic to improve processes.
“One of the important components is going to be driving out compute efficiency at the edge,” Dhana Cruickshank, client engagement principal, Global Telecommunications Industry at IBM, told us at MWC. “What edge computing is going to enable is actually processing data, where it needs to be processed, versus having to route data to and back to the data centers. […] I agree with creating network efficiency. That’s going to be the key right now. Ultimately [operators] want to monetize, but the first step is creating efficiency in the network.”
Optimizing resources and energy consumption are critical to achieving sustainability goals. All the stakeholders need to improve efficiency and collaboration to reduce the carbon footprint of the communication industry while optimizing their networks and ensuring that everyone can benefit from the digital economy.