Decarbonising 5G and the green mobile network


Energy efficiency is becoming a core purchasing priority for mobile telecom operators in the design and operation of their networks.

Sustainability is now fundamental in how operators design and implement mobile networks. However, actions are uneven across the globe and there are outstanding questions and barriers that could hold back industry progress towards net zero by 2050, a new report from the operators’ association GSMA and Microsoft suggests.

5G is expected to drive a disproportionate rise in mobile data traffic and energy consumption despite its energy efficiency versus 4G, according to the report. Trials and field test results from major equipment suppliers suggest the efficiency improvement is 50% or more on a national scale. However, without intervention, individual data consumption rises will feed through to an increased strain on network capacity and power usage.

Higher speeds and bandwidth-heavy applications, such as video streaming, AR and VR, are projected to drive monthly data usage per customer up nearly three times versus 4G smartphones. Although global 5G adoption is likely to be only 25% of total connections by 2025, the impact on overall data traffic levels will be disproportionately higher.

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To reduce their environmental footprint, the two methods for operators to consider, apart from reusing and repurposing network equipment and devices, are lowering energy consumption through improved energy efficiency and using more renewable energy.

The key technologies identified for improved energy efficiency are artificial intelligence, software and network virtualisation and site simplification, while power purchase agreements have helped advance renewable energy usage.

For example, AI should enable energy saving across several different areas such as shutdown and sleep applications of devices based on data traffic and predictive maintenance, while software and network virtualisation centralises the intelligence and control at the software layer, in turn enabling the standardising of hardware.

Among site simplification actions is the shutdown of the legacy 2G and 3G higher power consumption networks.

The report states that GSMA’s Intelligence division modelling suggests that over the years from 2020 to 2030, approximately 40% of required CO2 emissions to be avoided in manufacturing, transport, buildings and power can be enabled by mobile and digital technology. These sectors comprise 80% of global CO2, so the technological effect is significant.

GSMA Intelligence has also found that around 85% of operators cite energy efficiency and sustainability as a priority in their planned network transformation. But overall operators representing only 25% of subscribers globally – of which there are currently over 5.3 billion, according to GSMA – have committed to a carbon-neutral target.

However, these operators represent 50% of global telecoms revenue as they are heavily dominated by the higher income markets in Europe and North America and reflect a similar imbalance to the renewables rollout, with strong adoption in Europe and the US but other regions showing a more mixed fuel-usage profile.

The report notes that there are many reasons for this imbalance, while a key outstanding question is the extent to which technology and standards can incentivise a switch to more sustainable networks. This includes the use of open network equipment as part of broader network virtualisation and embedding efficiency into the 6G standards which are due to be promulgated in the latter half of the 2020s.