5 sustainability initiatives in the telecommunications industry

Telecom operators have committed to sustainability plans to reduce carbon emissions and energy use. But they also face challenges, like competing goals and behavioral changes.

Telecommunications operators face pressure to build out infrastructure that supports high-speed communications, all with environmental and sustainability concerns in mind. While many operators have pledged to support climate initiatives, the reality is some sustainability strategies are unattainable without additional changes.

Recent reports from GSM Association (GSMA) and ABI Research highlighted the initiatives that telecom operators are taking to tackle climate concerns and the challenges that stand in the way of progress.

Telecom sustainability by the numbers

As of 2022, 50 global operators have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint over the next decade -- up from 19 pledges in 2021, GSMA said in its 2022 "Mobile Net Zero" report. Additionally, operators making up 44% of global telecom revenue committed to net-zero targets by 2050.

A mobile connection releases about 59 kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide each year. By comparison, a flight from London to Berlin releases 600 kg of carbon dioxide, according to GSMA. The organization estimated that mobile operators are responsible for about 490 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent -- a metric that measures emissions from various greenhouse gases -- per year, about 1% of total carbon emissions in 2021.

Within operator networks, the radio access network (RAN) consumes 73% of energy, while the core, data centers and operations use 13%, 9% and 5%, respectively, GSMA said.

A major component of reducing carbon footprint is optimizing energy consumption -- a goal seemingly at odds with operators' needs to provide network infrastructure that delivers data at high speeds. But, while data traffic increased 31% in 2021, GSMA said electricity and associated carbon emissions increased only 5% and 2%, respectively -- indicating operators are making small gains with their sustainability initiatives.

Sustainability in the telecommunications industry

Operators approach sustainability using various strategies. But, ultimately, the overarching goal is to reduce carbon emissions and energy consumption.

According to ABI Research, operators calculate energy efficiency using the following metrics:

  • energy used per bit of data;
  • energy used for one base station or cell site;
  • energy needed for one connection; and
  • energy to produce a unit of revenue.

Below are some of the major sustainability initiatives among telecom operators.

1. Reduce carbon emissions

More than 90% of operators' operational carbon footprint is due to electricity used to power their networks, according to the 2022 ABI Research report "A Telco Sustainability Reality Check."

Operators can measure their carbon emissions by evaluating their greenhouse gas emissions based on three scopes:

  1. Scope 1 -- direct emissions from an operator;
  2. Scope 2 -- indirect emissions; and
  3. Scope 3 -- emissions not associated with the operator but which it is indirectly responsible for, such as emissions from operator services once customers use a service.

Scope 1 emissions might include the operation of base stations using diesel, while Scope 2 emissions could include energy bought to heat or cool a building. Scope 3 emissions are harder for operators to calculate but consitute the largest percentage of emissions.

Diagram showing five sustainability initiatives for telecom operators
These five strategies are driving sustainability efforts in the telecom industry.

Operators can choose to disclose their carbon impact footprint to the Carbon Disclosure Project for transparency and accountability. In 2021, 60 mobile operators opted to disclose their information, with 2.7 billion operator connections receiving a top score, indicating the implementation of best practices, GSMA said. The climate impact information of another 2.8 billion connections was not disclosed, however.

2. Use renewable energy and run green networks

Operators can reduce carbon emissions and optimize energy use by implementing renewable energy to power their networks. For example, instead of using diesel generators, operators might consider solar power, wind power, lithium-ion batteries and renewable electricity from a renewable source. Additionally, they could invest in wireless technologies and equipment that consume less energy.

But operators face some barriers in obtaining and implementing renewable energy, according to GSMA.

"The use of renewables depends on factors which are often beyond operators' control, such as the local climate, country-level regulatory environment, grid availability and the price of renewable energy from the grid," the report said.

3. Use AI and machine learning tools

As AI and machine learning continue to mature, operators can deploy tools that provide useful information about energy use and network performance.

For example, Ericsson supports a use case where AI-enabled technologies provide KPIs about RAN performance and 5G degradation, the ABI report said. In another use case, Ericsson uses AI for advanced root cause analysis, looking at field operations, performance, cost savings, energy and carbon reduction.

The reality is that nothing will change just by collecting more information. Behavior change must happen to reach net zero.
ABI Research'A Telco Sustainability Reality Check'

In another example ABI cited, an urban area could use AI and machine learning tools to optimize power consumption for 5G cell sites throughout the day, adjusting levels for higher traffic during busier hours or slower times during the night or on the weekends.

However, while AI and machine learning can provide useful stats about energy use and network performance, that data doesn't matter unless someone acts on it. And a shortage of AI talent among organizations could act as a barrier to actionable changes for the near future.

"The reality is that nothing will change just by collecting more information," the ABI report said. "Behavior change must happen to reach net zero."

4. Shut down 2G and 3G networks

Advances in cellular technology have led the industry to 5G, which offers low latency, high bandwidth and increased data rates for real-time use cases. But those capabilities come with a downside, as 5G is considered an energy-intensive technology.

According to ABI Research, 5G requires three times the number of base stations for the same coverage compared with LTE. The increase is because 5G has shorter signal propagation at higher frequencies and requires higher network densification -- or more cell sites for increased capacity.

Despite its high energy consumption, 5G is still more energy-efficient than legacy 2G, 3G and 4G networks. This efficiency is due to hardware and software changes, standardization around energy efficiency, power-saving features and a higher number of data units transmitted per kilowatt of energy, according to a Nokia test of 5G RAN power consumption.

While most operators have conducted 2G and 3G sunsets, many are still using legacy 4G infrastructure to run non-standalone 5G until they finish building their standalone 5G infrastructure. Until then, operators won't fully realize the potential energy benefits of 5G.

"Improving energy efficiency of networks and realizing the potential of 5G will require retiring older, less energy-efficient networks," the GSMA report said.

5. Prioritize device longevity

Another way mobile operators -- and the providers and suppliers with which they partner -- can implement sustainable practices is with device management.

Mobile consumers often desire the latest model of phones and devices. But phone providers can implement the following strategies to reduce device waste:

  • Extend the lifetime of mobile phones by a year, which would save about 21.4 million tons of carbon emissions annually by 2030, ABI said.
  • Make it easier for consumers to recycle and refurbish old devices.
  • Monitor e-waste dump sites to minimize air pollution and toxic hazards.

Similarly, telecom operators and networking vendors can improve product lifecycle management, supporting a circular economy. In a circular economy, products and devices, such as old switches and routers, are refurbished, reused and recycled to minimize waste.

Operators, vendors and enterprises can also implement virtualization and wireless network infrastructure to reduce dependence on physical devices, enable software upgrades and minimize supply chain emissions.

GSMA said operators and vendors can also consider the following best practices to support a more sustainable device lifecycle:

  • Use recyclable materials when building devices.
  • Use easy-to-reuse components and modular design.
  • Include interoperability with future technologies within the product's design.
  • Use compostable or renewable packaging.
  • Support low-carbon transport for shipping.
  • Use renewable energy during operations.
  • Include decommissioning, disassembly and recycling initiatives for products.

Sustainability still a work in progress

While telecom operators have started to make progress in their sustainability initiatives, they still need to prioritize network performance for their customers and build reliable networks.

AI and machine learning present promising options for operators to learn about how much energy their networks consume and where they can improve. Meanwhile, organizations can take smaller steps to better manage device lifecycle, evaluate renewable energy options and assess their own environmental behaviors.

Next Steps

ESG for IT: How CIOs can drive environmental sustainability

This was last published in December 2022

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