NGMN charts roadmap to reduced environmental impact by telcos

Yanitsa Boyadzhieva
By Yanitsa Boyadzhieva

Jan 23, 2024

  • NGMN issues a new report to steer the industry towards a sustainable future
  • The alliance places a special focus on the materials used in network equipment
  • AI and quantum computing could help with discovering “more environmentally preferable” materials, the publication suggests
  • Other recommendations offer ways to cut energy and water consumption

Operators should reduce their environmental footprint through more sustainable approaches in the design, manufacturing and operation of mobile networks, as well as finding ways to reduce their energy and water usage, the NGMN Alliance (NGMN) has urged in a new report.

In its latest publication, Reducing Environmental Impact: Best Practices and Recommendations, the NGMN has offered guidelines on how mobile network operators can manage and lower their impact on the environment in relation to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, materials usage, and energy and water consumption.

More responsible and sustainable usage of materials in network equipment is a prominent feature of the report: As Laurent Leboucher, a member of the NGMN Alliance board, and group CTO and SVP at Orange Innovation Networks, put it: “Environmental impact is not just limited to carbon emissions – use of rare materials, plastics and water footprint all need to be considered, managed and reduced [too].”

The NGMN outlines key strategies to reduce the use and to substitute or recycle materials, particularly harmful ones, rare elements and those that require greater resources in mining processes.

The alliance also noted that mobile operators need to establish “harmful substance management for all components”, including by requiring sub-suppliers to reveal the chemical composition of all candidate components, and selecting options that contain “no or the least number of harmful substances”.

Another recommendation involves formulating strategies to avoid using plastics derived from fossil carbon sources, as these still constitute “a substantial portion of the total weight” for many types of equipment. For instance, companies could consider using recycled plastics, plastics made from biological (or renewable) precursors or plastics made from chem-cycled precursors.

The NGMN also said that currently a diverse range of elements is used in network equipment systems – some of which are very difficult or uneconomic to recover – and recommended they be replaced with alternative recycled products, especially when it comes to rare metals. 

Another notable finding in NGMN’s publication suggests that the industry should leverage technologies such as AI, data augmentation using traditional and quantum computing, generative models and laboratory automation to speed up the discovery of “new, more environmentally preferable materials”. This is something that South Korean operator SK Telecom recently forecast would be a trend in 2024, and is something that Google is already working on, announcing in November 2023 that ‘GNoME’, a new material development AI tool by its subsidiary DeepMind, had discovered 2.2 million new crystals, including 380,000 stable materials that could power future technologies – see SKT highlights AI trends for 2024.

Beyond materials, the NGMN stressed the importance of looking at the energy usage levels of servers, network infrastructure and used equipment and the corresponding GHG emissions related to the manufacturing and operation of those network elements.

In terms of specific network equipment items, the alliance suggested that extending the lifespan of antennas is “one natural step towards more sustainable networks”. Here, a variety of methods can be considered, including software or hardware reconfiguration, choice of sustainable material, modular design, and decoupling active and passive antennas.

Watch out for water footprints

As climate change has been intensifying problems related to global water shortages, the alliance said it is necessary for companies to measure their water footprint throughout the lifecycle of equipment and across the supply chain.

“Reports indicate major water usage during manufacturing, such as semiconductor fabrication, while highlighting the vast number of user devices of all types using a significant amount of water in the process of being manufactured. Water consumption inevitably leads to waste water after leaving the process, which can be polluted and harmful if not treated properly. In general, multiple parameters need to be considered for water footprint,” the NGMN noted.

Therefore, it urged companies to make calculations of the direct use of water, as well as indirect water use for electricity generation and for ICT equipment manufacturing. It also recommended a reduction in the amount of freshwater used within businesses’ operations and buildings, as well as addressing local water challenges by partnerships and funding of watershed restoration projects, for instance.

Furthermore, the report noted that companies in the telco industry should make use of immersion cooling to reduce their dependence on water. The end goal here is for datacentres to have near-zero water consumption through water-free cooling and the optimised use of air-cooled chillers.

The NGMN report is based on input from across the industry, including operators, vendors and research institutes. The alliance called for all stakeholders to cooperate their efforts in a joint bid for a more sustainable future. “The mobile industry is working very hard to reduce its environmental footprint. However, no single stakeholder – operator or vendor – can do this alone. We must work together, collaborate for the sake of developing new solutions, share best practices, and learn from each other to make this happen. This new publication is an excellent example of the value NGMN provides to its membership and to the wider industry,” noted NGMN Alliance CEO Anita Döhler.

This publication is the latest in a series of NGMN reports on sustainability challenges and guidelines for how to address them. Previous editions include recommendations on reducing energy costs, improving the energy efficiency of radio access networks and addressing carbon emissions generated within the supply chains of telcos.

- Yanitsa Boyadzhieva, Deputy Editor, TelecomTV

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