Are telecoms companies just paying lip service to ‘going green’?

6 Oct 2016

Green microchip. Image: Deni_M/Shutterstock

With many supposed advantages to IoT, 5G and other communication technologies, the question has to be asked whether telecoms companies are really taking advantage of ‘going green’, or just paying it lip service?

With the knowledge that the ICT industry is heavily reliant on the mining of valuable natural minerals, you would think that telecoms companies would fall under the same environmentally damaging bracket.

After all, much of the equipment used within it – including sensors and masts erected to relay the signals – would be the result of such mining practices.

Future Human

Divisive opinions

What quickly becomes clear, however, is that there is no universal agreement on the question of the place of communications in changing practices that see companies ‘going green’.

Taking the UK as an example, one report in recent years cited that while the UK mobile industry contributed 0.3pc of the country’s greenhouse gases in a single year, it also contributed 1.8pc of its gross domestic product.

Globally, organisations like the GreenTouch consortium contain some of the biggest ICT companies around, who have all come together to develop a cleaner telecoms infrastructure.

In the few years since it was established, it has already announced energy-efficient improvements to its networks, that it claims will see net energy consumption of communication networks reduced by 98pc between 2010 and 2020.

However, researchers argue that while some companies create the notion that they are developing green telecommunications technology, they are not doing a genuine effort.

At the recent International Workshop on Green Wireless Networks (Next-GWIN) at Trinity College Dublin’s Connect Centre, researchers and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, TD, debated the title: ‘There is no such thing as green communication’.

While two sides debated the proposition, the result showed that, at least according to its chair Prof Luiz DaSilva, both sides would like to see the communications industry take a much broader view of green possibilities.

This doesn’t mean that they are not putting any effort in however, but speaking with, he said that any possible hesitations by companies to invest should be quickly put to one side.

“Profits are always an important motivator, and energy costs of telecoms infrastructure are significant,” DaSilva said, “but there is also growing awareness of ICT’s contribution to carbon emissions, sometimes estimated at around 2pc of total emissions. This figure is poised to grow unless the industry finds ways to be more efficient in energy consumption.

Prof Luiz DaSilva

Prof Luiz DaSilva, principal investigator at the Connect Centre. Image: Paul Sharp/SHARPPIX

“At the same time, ICT can also be a major enabler of a greener way of living and working, including transportation, smart buildings, and all kinds of services that can substantially cut carbon emissions as a whole.”

Importance of IoT and 5G

One possible solution is 5G, the next evolutionary step of mobile broadband with theoretical speeds of up to 100 times that of 4G.

With the rolling out of 5G base stations only a few hundred metres apart – as is the plan – low latency will mean less energy consumed by both mobile phones and internet of things (IoT) devices.

IoT, he added, is the area where the biggest contribution to a better environment is coming.

An Irish example, Silver Spring Networks, whose technology manages 23.6m devices in cities across the world, has recently deployed an IoT network canopy for Mayo County Council. Their goal is to enable smart street lighting with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions.

“There is huge potential for ICT to contribute to a greener world, and IoT is the gateway for an unprecedented range of greener practices, from smarter use of water resources, to smart agriculture and smart grids,” DaSilva said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic