Sustainability report card: Telcos doing well, could do better

  • With COP26 and all its attendant fuss and posturing now receding in the rear vision mirror, TelecomTV takes a critical look at telco sustainability 
  • While the industry has been patting itself on the back over its pledges on CO2 reduction, big problems loom when it comes to sustainability in advanced electronic equipment materials, such as batteries.
  • Where are all those precious minerals going to come from?

Here’s the telecoms sustainability problem: In many cases, telcos are doing well when it comes to pledging CO2reductions and look likely to get close to, or meet, ‘net zero’ targets if progress is maintained during the next decade. They will use a range of technology innovations in the network and data centre to slim their electricity consumption, a strategy greatly aided by the fact that reducing energy costs is already a major driver for operational expense reasons: With services operating against ever-thinner margins, power saving is now a must. And they will contract or build renewable power facilities to put the squeeze on whatever non-renewable consumption remains. Offsetting (tree planting etc) may also be deployed, although environmentalist opinion is divided on whether this should count against CO2 targets for the medium term. 

The fact is, though, that relying on renewable energy alone for compute, data storage and facility cooling, almost certainly won’t be enough to keep up with rapid growth in telcos' overall power consumption as they continue to build out ever-more powerful networks and build (or contract with) data center facilities (albeit facilities in receipt of the latest power reducing innovations) to meet ever-increasing demand.  

That in turn will see significant growth in the technologies designed to tap wind, water and solar power, all of which have sustainability problems of their own. 

For instance, the disposal of old wind turbines and solar panels will need complex recycling processes to prevent the world running out of the non-renewable resources used in their construction. 

Report card: must do better on precious metals

We’re already facing a looming sustainability crisis for some of the so-called ‘clean energy metals’ – copper, nickel, lithium, rare earths and cobalt – that will be required in tremendous volume for the manufacture of batteries, initially for electric cars and then for the power infrastructure required to ensure that highly variable, unpredictable but sustainable energy sources – wind, hydro, tide and solar – can be brought into play as fossil fuel replacements.

According to a recent New York Times article, unsustainable extraction of cobalt and other minerals for batteries is already causing friction in the Congo, all as a direct result of plans to switch to battery-powered vehicles. That’s driven up prices for unprocessed cobalt so that it’s become attractive for ‘illegal’ mining, with all the associated danger and violence that usually attends such activities.

It seems as if conservation in one area always leads to an unsustainable upsurge in another. 

How do we break that cycle?

The key must involve going to the other end of the value chain to throttle back on unsustainable electronic consumption of various kinds without negatively affecting the capabilities of end devices - especially where they are deployed to help us look after the planet. Easier written than done, of course...

To that end it’s surely time to reconsider the way end user devices have been sold, especially during the past couple of decades. Nobody can deny that smartphone marketing has proved very successful from a business point of view: It’s somehow managed to make the boring black smartphone an object of desire – a fondle-slab, as critics have dubbed the iPhone – and the industry has been able to pack the fondle-slab with leading edge electronics to increase performance and maintain growth with a compelling combo of sticks and carrots designed to get users to continuously upgrade and consume more demanding services and (for telcos) more data. The carrots include new features and capabilities, special deals on rentals and so on, while an expiring vendor obligation to provide system software support makes a pretty effective upgrade stick, as does peer pressure to fondle the latest model, all wrapped in a compelling barrage of aspirational advertising. 

All this we know. And even as telecom professionals hand over their (or their company’s) credit cards to buy the next model, they’re grumbling about it.

But in making smartphones so cool, aspirational and status-crucial, the industry has created a bit of a monster and it’s proving very hard to row back to make ‘sustainability’ the cool consideration you’d think it might be, given all the opinion surveying that appears to show that users (especially at the younger end of the spectrum) are very bought-in to the climate emergency and the need to lower CO2 emissions and pursue sustainability.

So successful have the leading smartphone vendors been at selling their visions of what a great smartphone should be (extremely similar, though they are) that the smartphone market is already proving very difficult to turn around to become hard-headed and sensible.

General sustainability: more effort needed this term

For instance, on the face of it, modular smartphones should tick quite a few boxes for an apparently sustainability-aware user base: It would enable users to build their own, custom smartphones with modules featuring appropriate memory, storage and processor to meet specific needs. Features like cameras could be basic or advanced; cases could be ruggedised or standard and they could be sold on the basis that they use little in the way of rare minerals and that the ability to upgrade bits on an as-needed basis means the old components could be upcycled and passed on to new owners or recycled to retrieve the precious materials. 

In fact, the modular smartphone concept was tried by several companies large and small midway through the last decade, at which point users gave it a brief peck on the cheek rather than a warm embrace and today the vendors have nearly all given up or scaled back. It’s fair to say that modularity has remained a niche segment.

Google actually produced a modular ‘Project Ara’ smartphone in 2014 with the objective of making the system capable of ‘hotplugging’ modules - “an analog of the Android app ecosystem, but in hardware” as it was said at the time (there’s a full report on the Google launch here). Alas, as with many Google projects, it all came to a full-stop despite about four years of development and the project was cancelled in 2016.

Another big player to enter the ring was Lenovo, which carried on Motorola’s ‘Z’, launched in 2016 when it actually sold more than 1 million units. Lenovo staggered on with the ‘Z’ but last year brought down the curtain, saying it was going to discontinue to concentrate on conventional phones. 

Amongst the small players was, and is, Fairphone, which it’s fair to say has developed a general sustainability pitch for its phone, rather than concentrate on its modularity aspects. That Fairphone is still operating and putting out new models is good (ish), but the fact that it hasn’t been joined by others highlighting sustainability reinforces the point that a phone which doesn’t look like the iPhone and doesn’t ensure that it can arguably out-wow it in at least one measure of smartphone smartiness, is unlikely to break through. (In writing this article I looked at reviews of the Fairphone and other ‘unusual’ phones and almost without exception the authors just pointed out that it couldn’t do what a leading smartphone could do and aesthetically was substandard, because - it seems - it didn’t look like an iPhone/Galaxy). 

What to make of 1st gen modular phones’ demise

Perhaps the brief scramble to produce modular phones was just too early; perhaps the technical ground hadn’t been cleared appropriately, perhaps the timing was off as users at that point were keen to keep up by purchasing ever faster, ever more responsive devices. Perhaps...

Across all sorts of sectors, modularity and integration tends to come in waves with a modularity trend running out of steam and its inverse, Integration, coming back into vogue. Much depends usually on the underlying speed of technical change but there’s no iron rule. 

On the consumer side, fashion may have a lot to do with it, and that may be the way forward for a ‘modular phone redux’. If it can be made cool to sport a capable modular smartphone that is upgradeable and, in its particulars, doesn’t promote general unsustainability, then we may see it come back for a second go. 

One thing is reasonably certain, to lay the groundwork for modularity, the industry’s general message - that the sophisticated and expensive smartphone is always best left sealed - must be ended.  For the longest time, even getting inside a phone to swap out the battery was often discouraged, but with Apple’s recent move on DIY repairs it looks like the supposed immutability of the smartphone is being challenged. 

Apple has very recently said it’s going to start selling spare parts and tools to users so they can do their own repairs on some iPhones and Mac computers. Apple has, until recently, been a real hold-out on this sort of openness and has tended to demand that devices should go back to its stores or to authorised repair providers to get new batteries or be made well again. 

But its recent moves to allow DIY is actually a return to its roots. Steve Jobs’s foundational Apple II computer had modularity front and centre, with multiple expansion slots so that third party devices could plug in. This feature sprang, not from any sustainability urge, but as a way to add features and capabilities to the base machine. It was an approach lauded at the time and one that kept the Apple II alive and kicking for over a decade, from 1977 into the early 1990s. It allowed the addition of extra memory and interfaces and even another operating system (the more business-like Z80-based CP/M). Clearly this ‘open’ approach had reputational advantages and seemed to result in customer loyalty as the longevity of the Apple II indicates, but it might also have slowed new Apple computer product sales for the same reason.  

Whatever the case, when it came to the first Macintosh and then the iPhone, Jobs’s instinct was to hold his technologies close and fend off third party devices (and even sometimes software) that he considered buggy, and which consequently might have diminished what we now refer to as the “user experience”.

This general approach had the effect of further raising the status of the iPhone, a phone so sophisticated that its users and uninitiated repairers were forbidden entry. To a greater or lesser extent this approach was followed by the rest of the industry – it all helped to pump up the ‘don’t touch’ status and, most recently, the high sticker prices on the flagship phones. 

With the sustainability mantra on the rise though, Apple’s grudging position on DIY repairs and third party repairers has clearly become less defensible – hence the recent announcement that Apple would extend the policy it implemented in 2019, when it announced that independent repair shops could join its 5,000 repair providers under an Apple programme to buy parts, tools and manuals.

Is this such a big deal?

It could be an important dent in the idea that the sealed smartphone represents the best in the best of all possible worlds. 

Now, under a self-service programme, Apple customers will be able to buy the same parts (and relevant manual) and perform their own repairs via an online store, which will start with about 200 parts and tools aimed at fixing the most common issues with displays, batteries and cameras on iPhone 12 and 13 models. 

It’s a case of ‘easy does it’... the Mac and more iPhone models are to be added to the repairable roster in due course, while Apple ensures that, by design, the items are more or less repairable by the average idiot armed with the proper tools. 

Apple’s original repair policies actually brings to mind the sorts of arguments we heard from telcos when it came to attaching non-telco devices and systems to their networks in the 1970s and 1980s. The spectre of misconfigured 110- or 240-volt a/c powered devices attached to twisted pair telephone lines electrocuting engineers in the local exchange was often raised, despite there being no record of anyone anywhere being thus dispatched. Another tack was the idea that OTT services - obviously not under telco control for quality and reliability - would sully telco reputations for network stability and general all-round dependability. Users experiencing problems, it was patiently explained, would naturally ring the telco to demand a fix. It was never the best argument in the world and there are clear echoes in the old Apple ‘don’t touch’ position.

Clearly encouraging a sensible level of handset DIY will be an enabler for some smartphone circularity with users usually being encouraged to return the replaced components to the manufacturer for selling on or careful materials recycling.

Best of all, the move may help to get users attuned to the idea that the smartphone is not necessarily inviolate, but could be modularised without great risk of it suffering a nervous breakdown.

The headmaster’s commentary

Leading telcos are doing well on sustainability at this moment, especially on their carbon footprint reduction. Handset vendors less so, but telcos have to take some responsibility for the impact of smartphones too and work with handset vendors to reduce them. Telcos are clearly a key part of the ecosystem and have benefited greatly from the success of smartphones, which have driven connection growth and will likely do so again with the introduction of 5G models and applications.  

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