As hunger for data explodes, ambitious plans afoot to green our ICT networks

23 Jan 2013

Thierry Van Landegem, chairman of GreenTouch

A consortium of industry stakeholders has ambitious plans to reduce the carbon footprint of ICT networks by a factor of 1,000. Ann O’Dea speaks to GreenTouch chairman Thierry Van Landegem.

At a time when our hunger for digital data seems almost insatiable, many question whether the ICT industry is part of the problem or the solution to reducing carbon emissions. Thierry Van Landegem is a man with little doubt as to the answer. Vice-president of Global Operations for Bell Labs, the research arm of Alcatel-Lucent, and a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Sustainability, Van Landegem is chairman of GreenTouch, a consortium of leading ICT industry stakeholders which aims to improve the energy efficiency of ICT networks by a factor of 1,000. An ambitious target indeed, but, says Van Landegem, eminently achievable.

“It is a very bold call,” says Van Landegem, who visits Dublin next week to address business leaders at the Green Growth Forum in The Convention Centre. “And you may ask yourself why 1,000? Well a few years ago, Bell Labs did a study on how energy efficient ICT networks are, and we took a very scientific approach. We came to a result that actually suggested a potential factor of 10,000.”

In the event, it was decided to shoot for the more feasible target of just 1,000.“As you can imagine, even that goal is too big for any one organisation to approach on its own, and that’s why we said, if we wish to solve this equation, we really need to involve other major stakeholders.”

Thus the GreenTouch consortium was born. “We looked at all aspects of telecommunications and decided we must have involvement of service providers, equipment providers and vendors, and of course, since we’re talking state-of-the-art technologies here, the involvement of academia was vital.”

Members of the GreenTouch consortium

Launched in May 2010, today the GreenTouch consortium includes some 60 members, including the likes of Bell Labs, Vodafone, Fujitsu, France telecom and Chinese giant Huawei. Closer to home academic partners include Cambridge University and Ireland’s own DCU and Waterford Institute of Technology, while the consortium has an alliance with the prestigious MIT in the US.

By 2015, the GreenTouch goal is to deliver the architecture, specifications and road map needed to increase network energy efficiency by that factor of 1,000 from 2010 levels. This, says Van Landegem, will be accomplished by designing fundamentally new network architectures and creating the enabling technologies on which they are based.

While there has been much discussion of greening data centres, and utilising renewable energy sources, less attention has been given to the networks that carry all that voice and data to our businesses and homes. Van Landegem says there’s a reason for this.

“If we look at ourselves the users, what we are interested in is speed and bandwidth capacity, because we have all these new applications, and all this digital communication we want to do. As a result, the telecoms stakeholders, too, have been focused on these priorities, and of course, cost – after all, these are for-profit organisations. Energy efficiency simply dropped down the list.”

As the effects of climate change become more evident, and sustainability becomes a greater business priority, it is moving up that list, he says.

“As a result, some work has been done in this area, but its far from sufficient,” he says. “And that is where GreenTouch helps in that we have set the bar very high. If you look at the factor of 1,000, this is going to involve much more than business as usual. It is by setting such ambitious goals that you make people think beyond what they currently do. That was exactly what we had in mind. We’re saying ‘hey guys, we need to think really disruptively, we need to think about all the means and ways we haven’t though about before’.

And there’s little time to lose, he adds. “Just look at how telecommunications are evolving. We, as consumers, are eating up bandwidth. It’s mind boggling to see my kids using their tablets to do everything from watching movies to Skyping and more. This is more than exponential traffic growth and if you compare that to the evolution of energy efficiency of telecoms networks, it is not keeping pace.

“In the past they followed each other, but now if we continue to do business as usual when it comes to energy consumption in ICT networks, while seeing that enormous forecasted increase in traffic, then we will have an ever-increasing gap. The aim of GreenTouch is to reduce that gap through disruptive technologies. If we want to reach a sustainable way of growing these networks to support that traffic growth, we need to do something disruptive.”

GreenTouch at work

According to Van Landegem, the progress made by GreenTouch in its two and a half years in existence is enormous, with some 25 research projects under way throughout the world. Indeed, it has already showcased several projects which demonstrate impressive improvements in energy efficiency. In April 2012, GreenTouch showcased a breakthrough new technology called Bi-PON (Bit-Interleaved Passive Optical Network) which dramatically improves energy efficiency in fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) networks, and in wireless backhaul. By adapting protocols and making data flow more efficiently, Bi-PON cuts power by a factor of about 30.

If that’s all too technical for you, according to Van Landegem, this could offer the equivalent saving in energy of taking half a million cars off the road. “That is like taking all the cars in San Francisco off the road permanently. This is just one example, and we have many more to come in various parts of the network.

“And that’s important, if you talk about ICT networks you have the various parts from the wired access networks which can be copper or fibre based, you have wireless networks, transmission networks. All these different parts of the networks have different architectures and protocols. And we are looking at every single part to see where we can improve efficiency.”

Among his many roles, Van Landegem has sat on the boards of various incubation centres over the years. I ask if clean tech is a sector where our Irish start-ups can excel? He believes it is an area of great potential, as attention on sustainability grows internationally.

He points to recent research which took place on the Bell Labs campus in Dublin. “We are working on these sustainability challenges and we come up with various opportunities, but even as a big company you cannot valorise all of these research assets. We have to make decisions in terms of what are we capable of implementing, the time frames, etc. For example, we had done a lot of research in energy use in base stations and had several patents around it. Because we didn’t valorise it internally ourselves we actually did a technology licence agreement with a Dublin-based start-up.”

He is referring to early stage start-up, Mulhuddart-based Klondike Innovations. “I think that’s a great example of a few entrepreneurial guys who can take that asset and turn it into a real commercial product. And there are many more examples of this kind of open innovation. This is an area of great potential.”

A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 20 January.

Thierry Van Landegem will give a keynote address at the Green Growth Forum at The Convention Centre Dublin this Friday, 25 January, to look at how Ireland can be a leader in the low-carbon economy.

Ann O’Dea is the CEO and co-founder of Silicon Republic and the founder of Future Human