Telecom industry must do more on climate change

Mark Newman/Ovum
04 Dec 2015

“Innovation will save our warming planet – so where is the investment?” This was the headline of an article in Sunday’s edition of The Observer, a UK broadsheet, on the eve of the Paris climate talks. The article was largely a critique of government failures to lead R&D programs to develop new technologies that reduce carbon emissions. But it got me thinking about the roles and the responsibilities – not to mention the opportunities – for the telecom industry and the broader ICT sector.

We know that the telecom industry is a massive consumer of electricity. In many countries, telecom operators are the biggest electricity guzzlers. Powering mobile base stations, in particular, is a hugely expensive business. In developing countries base stations are often powered by diesel because they beyond the reach of the electricity grid. Data centers can also be big polluters, with many owners unwilling to invest in technologies and architectures that will make them more efficient. Cooling can account for a third of total electricity consumption.

While many industries’ use of electricity has peaked, ICT demand continues to surge because of our insatiable demand for data connectivity and digital services. At Ovum we have just updated our traffic forecasts. These show a near-tripling of total traffic across fixed and mobile networks, from 340 million petabytes in 2015 to 1.04 billion petabytes in 2020.

This is going to mean more base stations and more data centers. A report published by an environmental group last year claimed that the US would need 17 new power plants to be built between now and 2020 to power the additional data center capacity required over the next five years.

There is little or no prospect of energy savings keeping pace with traffic growth, which means that the ICT sector’s carbon footprint will inevitably grow.

So, what can be done? The ICT industry cannot be accused of not trying to develop alternative forms of energy – not doing so would be financially negligent. But the adoption, for example, of solar power has never really taken hold. In India, which has about 400,000 base stations, the government said in 2012 that by 2015, 50% of rural sites should be powered by renewables by 2015. It has yet to be seen whether operators have achieved this target. When it comes to solar-powered data centers, Ovum principal analyst Roy Illsley argued in a report published in September that generating your own solar power is not currently a viable option.

However slow and problematical the adoption of renewables may be across the ICT sector, the industry needs to make it one of the key inputs in the development of new technologies.

Internet of Things is near the top of most ICT companies’ strategic priorities. And there are already voices questioning whether issues around power consumption and carbon emissions are receiving enough airtime.

Sandhi Bhide, director of innovative IoT solutions at Intel, said earlier this year that the energy required to power these devices and their internal sensors is “huge” and that demand for energy is outstripping supply. He added that the next wave of IoT devices would not be able to rely entirely on batteries and wired power.

Even if we don’t have all the answers to the growing demand for power – and even if we believe with some justification that the ICT sector will inevitably inherit the power requirements of other industries that are being digitally disrupted – more needs to be done before the “polluter” tag starts getting thrown around and begins to stick.

There are a few simple things that the industry should do – and should be seen to be doing – before this happens. Orange launched a campaign this week to get people to delete their old emails. What other power-saving tips could operators and device vendors give their customers? Looking at the operators themselves, are they doing enough to manage their own power consumption? Shouldn’t it be possible to turn down the power on any base station at off-peak times?

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