5G will be the most transformative communications technology and will enable a universe of new services, including advanced energy management capabilities that will be critical to solving growing energy and sustainability challenges.

However, figures from the GSM Association show that the telecoms industry currently consumes around 3 per cent of global energy. But as Per Lindberg, chief executive at Ranplan Wireless, points out, “The onset and rollout of 5G globally could result in a potential increase in data traffic of up to a thousand times. Additionally, the infrastructure to cope with the 5G era could arguably consume up to three times as much energy.” In addition, new research highlights the practical challenges of 5G energy management facing telecommunications operators. Estimates suggest 5G networks can be up to 90% more efficient per traffic unit than their 4G predecessors, but they still require far more energy due to increased network density, heavy reliance on IT systems and infrastructure, and increased network use and accelerated traffic growth.

The report Why Energy Management Is Critical To 5G Success from telecommunications consultancy STL Partners and Vertiv, a global provider of critical digital infrastructure and continuity solutions, concludes telecom operators should address these challenges in two ways: By adopting energy efficiency best practices across their networks, and by encouraging their customers to adopt 5G-enabled services to reduce consumption and emissions in all walks of life.

STL Partners estimates global 5G traffic will overtake 3G/4G as soon as 2025, making sustainability an urgent priority for operators. In fact, 40% of enterprises surveyed for the report indicated energy efficiency should be the first or second priority for telecom operators when deploying 5G networks.

But how can 5G practically increase energy efficiency? According to the UN, one way to do it is combining 5G technology with IoT because devices will be able to power up and shut down automatically when not needed, which will not only increase energy efficiency, but reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enable more use of renewable energy, reduce air and water pollution, minimize water and food waste, and protect wildlife as well. According to the UN, 68 % of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. City governments and businesses are looking to 5G, artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT technology to create smart cities where sensors, cameras and smart phones will be linked; the connectivity and speed of these networks will enable cities to be better managed and more efficient and sustainable.

International standards have called for 5G to require much less energy than 4G, which means using less power while transmitting more data. For example, one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity is needed to download 300 high-definition movies in 4G; with 5G, one kWh can download 5,000 ultra-high-definition movies.

As previously mentioned, challenges can be addressed by adopting best practices aimed at mitigating those increases and reducing costs. The report by STL Partners and Vertiv uses research including a survey of 500 enterprises from around the world to outline the challenges telcos face as they wrestle with the increased energy use and costs associated with 5G, then provides some of the best practices to face them, organized across five categories:

  1. Network technology: Deploying hardware and software designed and operated for efficiency
  1. Infrastructure facilities: Including new edge data centers to support cloud native IT
  1. Infrastructure management: Deploying the appropriate hardware and software to measure, monitor, manage, improve and automate the network
  1. Organization and evaluation: Taking a holistic, full lifecycle view of costs and investments across the network
  1. Working with others: Embracing innovative and non-traditional commercial models, standards and collaboration

“Telecom operators making meaningful energy and cost reductions are doing so by evaluating the entire ecosystems around their network operations – people, objectives, infrastructure and partners,” said Scott Armul, vice president for global DC power and outside plant at Vertiv. “Because of the reliance on IT to enable 5G applications, a high degree of collaboration will be required across operators, OEMs and infrastructure providers, and customers to ensure deployments are optimized and every possible efficiency is pursued.”

5G as a tool for sustainability

Network efficiency improvements and best practices, while important, are only one piece of the energy puzzle that comes with 5G. Those efforts must be paired with a more holistic, societal approach to curbing energy use and emissions that leverages 5G capabilities in ways far beyond the control of the telco operator.

“Operators are deploying 5G networks to grow new revenues. This growth will come from new connectivity and applications enabling operators’ customers’ own transformation journeys,” said Phil Laidler, director at STL Partners. “To be credible, informed partners for their customers, operators must lead by example. Energy strategy is a great place to start.”  

Opportunities for Progress

In terms of influencing customer behaviors in order to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, the report identified three industries with the potential for significant improvement through the use of 5G services. The manufacturing sector could achieve up to $730 billion worth of benefits by 2030 through the use of 5G to enable advanced predictive maintenance and automation. Transportation and logistics could get up to $280 billion in benefits by 2030 through advanced driver assistance, connected traffic infrastructure, and automated home deliveries. Plus, 5G could allow the healthcare sector to provide improved access to healthcare services for up to 1 billion patients by 2030 while simultaneously reducing emissions through higher asset utilization, reduced patient and clinician travel, and higher clinician productivity.

Influencing such behaviors is critical to operators’ efforts to mitigate the environmental impact of 5G, but there is work to do in order to build the partnerships needed. Just 37% of those surveyed said they see operators as credible partners in reducing carbon emissions today, but 56% said they believed telcos could be credible partners in the future.

Paul Marshall, chief technology officer and founder of IoT specialist Eseye, goes as far as to predict 5G will be the first carbon-neutral network. “The energy-saving potential of 5G connectivity, coupled with IoT technology, is huge,” he says. “Better-connected devices, armed with data provided to them every second, allows for autonomous operation.

“It is this autonomy that will usher in a reduction in energy usage as more and more devices will be able to shut down when not in use to conserve energy, then powering up again in time for when they are required, without any human input.”


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