Telecommunications, specifically 5G, is widely recognized as a cornerstone of the Intelligent Industry and a driver of digital innovation. And as we continue to push towards a smarter, more advanced society, sustainability efforts are at the top of the telco priority list.
Why is this important for telco enterprises? More than two thirds of organizations (67%) plan to take the sustainability credentials of 5G operators, vendors, and suppliers into account as part of their 5G procurement decisions, meaning that leaders trying to delay the sustainability conversation will have to readjust their strategies.
The telco industry has traditionally fallen behind its counterparts when it comes to sustainability. But as consumers demand services that make them feel like responsible citizens, these organizations must rethink how they architect their solutions, handle capacity planning, and leverage digital transformation.
Understanding the challenges and potential solutions
So why has the telco industry lagged behind other sectors when it comes to prioritizing sustainability? The primary reason is that telco enterprises struggle with monetization and output models, which has led them to focus on revenues rather than environmentalism. This closely relates to an even bigger challenge – the disparity of wireless capacity available in different locations. At a high level, certain areas (typically urban) experience overcapacity, with several providers competing for the same market share, whereas others (typically rural) lack access to these networks at all. Beyond this societal disparity, the issue of overcapacity in urban areas is also propelling carbon emissions issues.
Telco enterprises must determine how they can solve this issue because sustainability is no longer an option from a consumer perspective. The majority of power requirements in this sector go to wireless networks, signifying that if telcos do not find a way to optimize their energy consumption to improve cost-efficiency and sustainability, the industry risks significant reputational damage. The solution? An aggregated model that will increase the density of networks to reduce overall cost of power consumption. This type of model involves collaboration between competing telecoms providers to determine how to use existing capacity across different locations – even if it means giving a competitor control over one area.
Another way to make a positive impact is to prioritize better strategies for the cloudification of networks. Networks consume a lot of power, but only operate around 10% to 15% capacity. These networks are built and designed to tackle traffic surges, but for most of their lifecycle are working significantly below their efficiency and consumption capabilities. Prioritizing more virtualized networks on standardized hardware, making use of efficiency techniques such as sleeper cells, and utilizing AI solutions to optimize networks and create new deployment models can usher in a major transformation with a positive impact. Introducing a more holistic plan for existing data centers, cloudifying networks, and phasing out old communications technology are all ways that telcos can sustainably improve their business operations.
Finally, the deep engineering of silicon is a significant challenge in the telecoms industry. As a result, leading silicon players have begun to prioritize the development of silicon for low-power consumption that uses less power but delivers the same performance.
By addressing these key challenges and outlining viable solutions, the telecoms industry can begin their sustainability journey. Once on this road, the potential for telco’s sustainability impact is threefold:
New energy-efficient networks
As this sector continues to advance, telecoms companies will continue to sharply transition to renewable energy sources and more energy-efficient networks – and research shows that 5G and 4G networks are seven times less polluting than 3G ones.
5G has been designed to be more sustainable and more cloud native, with an increased focus on virtualization and diversity in the vendor ecosystem. What’s further, the network slicing capabilities of 5G have opened the door for consumers to use less network devices, thus decreasing energy consumption in the home.
A historic network challenge has been recycling and e-waste. In 2021, 54.7 million Metric Tons of e-waste was generated globally, with this number forecasted to reach 75 million Metric Tons by 2030. Technologies such as 5G and Wi-Fi 6 support a large number of devices, leading these migrations to prompt consumers to use less routers and devices at home that need to be manufactured and recycled. Another example is the shift from SIM cards to digital SIMs, which signifies an increased transition towards more digital models.
While this is only a start, operators have also begun working on hardware, supply chain, and transformation network solutions. For example, base-station emissions should be more efficient in the design and operation of networks, with an increased awareness of consumption. As previously mentioned, there should be a clear roadmap for recycling and mitigating the long trail of equipment that ends up in landfills. Telcos have begun addressing these issues — though there is more work to be done.
Reducing environmental impact across industries
Almost all industries are connected. Generally, these sectors are linked over specific IoT networks that impact our carbon footprint, which makes the transition to sustainable networks (such as 5G) essential.
Connecting the world together is the core mission of any telecoms enterprise. Years ago, telco providers would have crews of employees driving to their physical network hotspots to check that all of the technology was working. The shift towards IoT and connected networks has impacted this industry in even the most unexpected ways — such as decreasing vehicle emissions from drivers traveling to and from network sites.
Another example is the retail industry, in which stores have been able to decrease energy consumption and increase efficiency due to the connectivity model that telcos offer. All these seemingly small and unnoticed shifts sparked by innovation have an impact on a sustainable future.
Digital transformation is a journey that will touch everyone, and telcos will not be exempt.
If you peel the onion back, digital transformation improves trust with consumers, and will be the primary reason that telcos solve the sustainability challenge. Moving from a physical to a digital world could not be achieved without connectivity — and sustainability is key to the equation.
For several years, and especially since the pandemic, remote operations have proven to be essential to society’s perseverance. Remote schooling, hybrid working models, digital doctor’s appointments, and beyond allowed the world to propel forward at a time where all life stood still. Digital transformation ushered in efficiency, scalability and flexibility, all due to high-speed connectivity making it possible.
Additionally, from a hardware perspective, many systems have moved to cloud and edge on more sustainable networks, where energy consumption is significantly lower on cloud. From a software perspective, there has been an increased spotlight on more sustainable techniques for writing software. More compact, low code/no code green software that utilizes less resources has become a priority, and key players have started unlocking new ways to write software.
Like any other business, telcos are driven from a revenue perspective. But these businesses must adapt to and accommodate the consumer demand for increased prioritization of sustainability. They must be prepared to answer questions about their quality of service through a sustainability lens and think about how they measure sustainability and use it as a differentiator in the marketplace.
Telco leaders must be sharp and ready to communicate how their sustainable efforts will trickle down into all other industries – and have the ability to prove it.