The tech industry has long sought to join the green movement, though its leaders are often accused of spouting vague slogans and making difficult-to-test promises.
At the Mobile World Congress, an industry gathering in Barcelona, slogans were certainly a thing of the past. But Huawei, Orange and the trade association GSMA tried to flesh out some of the green claims about 5G.
The next-generation mobile network is being rolled out around the world, with the promise of superfast internet going hand in hand with claims of huge environmental benefits.
Laurence Williams from the University of Sussex in the UK recently led research into the available evidence on the supposed green benefits of 5G.
He told AFP how industry claims are piling up.
Will 5G become more energy efficient?
Jean-Marie Chaufray of Orange praised energy-saving features such as “sleep modes”, which shut down components when not in use, and more energy-efficient antennas and other hardware.
He told the MWC that 5G would be “10 times more efficient” than 4G by 2025.
Laurence Williams: “Energy efficiency is only half the equation. The total amount of data traffic sent over mobile networks is obviously also important.
“Mobile data traffic will continue to grow strongly in the coming years. It is increasingly recognized that 5G will be at least partly the cause of this growth in data traffic.
“Several estimates have been made by the industry – some suggest network power consumption will decrease, others may remain stable, at least one estimate suggests network power consumption will increase as a result of 5G.
“A recent study from Finland estimated that the electricity consumption of the main mobile networks was about 10 percent higher in 2017 than in 2010. The authors argue that this was due to rapidly increasing data usage and new functionalities, especially video streaming.
“While this study covers the period just before 5G was rolled out around the world, it nevertheless shows that improvements in network energy efficiency are no guarantee of reductions in network energy consumption.”
Will 5G help to achieve carbon neutral goals?
GSMA’s Emanuel Kolta boasted that telecom companies were “one of the leading private sector companies” for committing to net-zero targets.
And he paved the way to achieve those goals by leveraging renewable energy, more efficient batteries, and “low hanging fruit,” such as using artificial intelligence to enable shutdown of components during less busy periods.
Laurence Williams: “It is encouraging that telcos are increasingly committed to climate goals and to using renewable energy to power their networks.
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“While some operators are already supplying their networks with 100 percent renewable energy, a 2021 GSMA benchmark survey suggested that in 31 networks in 28 different countries, an average of 46 percent of energy consumption was provided by renewable sources, with significant differences between countries.
“The operational energy needed to power mobile networks is important, but so is the embodied energy needed to produce network infrastructure.
“A lot of research into the implications for the energy consumption of 5G only looks at operational energy.
“We should at the very least be skeptical of the purported energy-saving potential of strategies that require the large-scale introduction of new infrastructure based on assessments that fail to consider the embodied energy costs of that infrastructure.”
Will 5G bring greater energy savings?
Huawei’s Duan Hao pointed to the importance of the so-called enablement effect, which he said would “accelerate digitization and decarbonization across all sectors”.
The idea is that through better connectivity, more services and activities can be moved online, reducing the energy consumption of transportation and other industries.
Some industry estimates suggest energy savings at a ratio of 10 to one – every unit of energy invested in 5G will save an additional 10.
Laurence Williams: “A study by the University of Zurich brings this ratio closer to three-to-one, mainly through flexible working, smart grids and precision farming.
“However, others have warned that efficiencies with 5G support could simply lead to greater consumption of certain goods or services or only partially replace older goods or services — people can still attend face-to-face meetings and buy physical music in addition to conference calls. and stream music.
“Even if 5G produces activation effects that exceed its own emissions, it does not necessarily mean that network operators could be allowed to achieve lower levels of emissions reductions.
“Enablement effects are difficult to estimate or measure and clear accounting mechanisms and principles should be established to ensure consistency with carbon budgets and climate policies.”