Is 5G too powerful for its own good?

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Nov 17, 2020

  • Keeping 5G networks’ electricity consumption down is going to be a hard ask 
  • Telcos may have to rely on renewable energy to keep their halos glowing
  • And even then...

Telco executives do a lot of worrying about power - electricity, that is. There are two strands here. There’s the ‘save the planet corporate responsibility’ power concern. That one’s now embedded in corporate sustainability programmes. BT, for instance just this month announced that it was hitting its target by powering it’s entire business - that’s network, offices and shops worldwide - with 100% renewable electricity. All the other big telco groups are highlighting (as it were) similar programmes and target achievements. Vendors, too, are doing their bit. We recently reported that ADVA had  committed to a 67% cut in emissions from its operations by 2032 - all part, it claims, of a holistic sustainability strategy.

The second strand is the potentially embarrassing fact (sustainability-wise) that the industry’s core technology, 5G, is going to be an electricity gobbler like no other. 

So while the industry’s aggregate electricity consumption, taking into account office heating and lighting reductions coupled to deductions for the use of renewable electricity, is no doubt performing well against targets, there’s no getting away from the fact that the core telco power-consuming activity - running a huge network of hundreds of thousands (or millions for the biggest networks) of radios - is projected to drive a massive increase in their power consumption. 

According to a report from ABI Research and InterDigital -  Environmentally Sustainable 5G Deployment -  global wireless ecosystem energy consumption is set to more than double - growing 160% by 2030. 

Put another way, it says the energy footprint of the global wireless ecosystem, including network infrastructure and end devices, topped 19.8 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe) per year. By 2030, consumption is expected to grow to 51.3 Mtoe – a number equivalent to all the energy to be consumed throughout Sweden, or roughly the same amount of energy to be consumed by all the households in the United Kingdom that year.

That sounds like the sort of frightening projection likely to throw those overall telco sustainability targets out of the (triple glazed) window. So what are the options?

First, says the report, what’s required is a hugely increased role for renewable energy in telco calculations. But in addition, the energy consumption problem with 5G has to be recognised and addressed at the onset of deployment to ensure that the networks are made as sustainable as possible. The technology has enough problems already from a public acceptance point of view (baseless links to cancer, Coronavirus etc)  without being made a scapegoat for climate change or power shortages. 

But how?  

There is no silver bullet available. The study refers to a combination of techniques to control network topologies; better/smaller chips and more integrated systems to reduce device power consumption; better battery technology, both in the infrastructure and on the device; the use of AI to better direct beam-forming for massive MIMO antennas; thriftier ASICs and real-time monitoring of power consumption so that devices and subsystems can be turned down when not under load. 

Every component in the chain can be tweaked and managed to yield a slightly better power consumption number. So enough ‘slightlies’ and you have ongoing and improving power savings for the whole. That appears to be the theory, time will tell how well the industry can execute. In the meantime it looks like telco execs will just have to keep on worrying. 

To read a final version of the report, Environmentally Sustainable 5G Deployment, please click here.

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