In recent years, delivering carbon-free communication has been a key challenge for telecom companies and that is a cause for concern, particularly as telecoms alone accounts for around 2 per cent of global energy demand – a figure that is only likely to increase as the world becomes more connected. Reports suggest that 5G is greener than 4G, and that is certainly true when we look at pure energy consumption. But 5G opens the door to much more bandwidth, which in turn drives the adoption of hungry applications that are responsible for causing the problem in the first place.
Deployment of dense 5G networks, while previous networks remain in operation, is adding to the demand, prompting operators to consider their impact on the environment carefully. The business case for creating a sustainable path to 5G and beyond is stronger than ever. Consumers are also now hyper-aware of their own impact on the climate, to the point where subscribers may factor in an operator’s green credentials when choosing their services. In the telecom sector, almost half (46 per cent) of consumers say that environmental sustainability is either important or essential when it comes to their choice of service provider.
So, what are communication service providers (CSPs) doing to make themselves more environmentally friendly, and what is the driving force behind going green? Efforts to source renewable energy are improving environmental impact and there is a broad agreement that systemic change is needed – an overhaul of infrastructure and how the telecom industry uses energy. While long-term infrastructure changes should be pursued, there are immediate actions that mobile operators can take to drastically reduce their network-wide energy use. It all comes down to data. The more data traffic a network has to carry, the greater the energy load.
Traffic volumes with high-resolution videos are growing exponentially with 5G. Today, roughly 70 per cent of data traffic on mobile networks is video traffic. Video consumption has skyrocketed in recent years, with everything from Netflix and YouTube to Facebook and TikTok, all increasing demand for data-hungry video streams. Yet, despite the soaring increase in video delivery across networks, little is being done to optimise the flow of data to make it more efficient and less resource hungry.
Under-utilised bytes means wasted energy
The majority of video output from content providers is delivered at the highest available quality according to available bandwidth. And so, pushing ultra-high-resolution video to a small-screen smartphone is a waste of bytes. Why? That is because the wasted bytes equate to wasted energy, and the perceivable difference to an end-user, between receiving a high-definition stream or one at a slightly lower resolution, is negligible on small-screen devices. The volume of wasted bytes is only likely to increase, as 5G continues its rollout and video streams default to higher resolutions.
Traffic management helps reduce energy consumption
Traffic management solutions allow operators to distinguish between different types of content and, optimise video streams independent of the content provider delivering them. This means video content can be “capped” at a certain resolution, so users are not streaming ultra-high-definition YouTube videos to their 5-inch screens unnecessarily – saving them data while lowering the energy burden of the network. Further, research from the Mobile Video Industry Council (MOVIC) found that most (71 per cent) of consumers actually perceived a higher quality video experience when video was optimised for their devices. If users prefer to override this function and stream in high-resolution, they still have the option to do so, for example, if they are casting their mobile to a larger screen. A recent report revealed that optimised video with traffic management solutions has the potential to reduce network-wide energy consumption by more than 10 per cent, saving millions in energy costs for operators worldwide.
The real potential for change, however, appears to lie in setting emission reduction targets. Most leading communications service providers have already pledged to switch to 100 per cent renewable energy sources in the next few years, as well as rolling out more energy-efficient technologies and practicing carbon offsetting.