GreenTouch study says comms networks could cut energy consumption by 90pc by 2020

13 May 2013

Thierry Van Landegem, chair, GreenTouch, addresses Silicon Republic's Green Growth Forum in January. Photo: Conor McCabe

As the GreenTouch consortium today shares findings of new global research, we spoke to its chairman Thierry Van Landegem, and to Thierry Klein, technical chair of GreenTouch, and head of Green Research of Bell Labs.

The GreenTouch global study, which is published today, shows the net energy consumption in overall networks can be reduced up to 90pc by 2020.

GreenTouch is a consortium of leading information and communications technology (ICT) industry, academic and non-governmental research experts dedicated to fundamentally transforming communications and data networks, including the internet, and significantly reducing the carbon footprint of ICT devices, platforms and networks. As well as Bell Labs, members include AT&T, Fujitsu, France telecom, Huawei, and academic institutions like Cambridge in the UK, Berkeley Labs in the US, and DCU and Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.

The study applied advanced modelling to better understand potential network operations in 2020, taking into account the dramatic increases anticipated in communications traffic over the next decade. The research evaluated energy efficiencies in different types of networks, comparing those in 2010 with those incorporating technologies and architectures the consortium has identified that could be in use by 2020.

“At GreenTouch, we are almost exactly three years into our journey and we have made great progress,” said Van Landegem, who is also 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. “As well as the tremendous findings of our research, those three years also resulted in great progress in terms of membership. We started off with a handful of founders and we now are at 53 members. That is also a great achievement.

“By means of setting these disruptive, bold and ambitious goals, we were able to bring together the parties and get them to do the research together,” he said. “Because this is long-term research, you can get rid of competitive forces and collaborate. The result of that is fabulous in terms of what we can achieve in research. And there are still technologies we’re working on that are not announced in this report, so we can still go much further.”

Open innovation is the key, according to Van Landegem, who gave a keynote at Silicon Republic’s Green Growth Forum back in January of this year. “Because it is such an ambitious goal, because it is such a complex type of effort in terms of the complexity and broadness of the field in technology, one company cannot achieve this. You have to work together.

“We believe that we have with GreenTouch is a blueprint of what industry can achieve if you bring together all the stakeholders. You can achieve a lot in terms of the big societal challenges. You need this kind of open innovation.”

It’s a theme he will pick up when he returns to Dublin to speak at the Open Innovation 2.0 conference in Dublin Castle from 20-21 May.

Research outcomes

Technical chair of GreenTouch Thierry Klein spoke to us about some of the details of the research.

“The outcome of this comprehensive research study is that it is possible to reduce net energy consumption in networks by up to 90pc within the 2020 timeframe,” he said. “The key word there is ‘net’. So we’re saying we can reduce the energy consumption in the network while handling the traffic growth. So it’s not just about making sure the energy consumption doesn’t go up, but ensuring that energy consumption goes down by 90pc. This is pretty impactful for the operators, because this really means they can handle the applications and the services that generate this traffic and generate the revenues they need while actually paying less for their electricity bill. They can improve their carbon footprint and still provide the products and services that their customers will want.”

Klein pointed to some of the underlying findings of the report, like the potential impact for mobile networks, which he says stand to benefit the most from energy efficiency efforts, given they are currently the most inefficient and yet the fastest-growing networks in terms of data volumes. The report finds that mobile networks could realise potential energy-efficiency improvements of up to 1,043 times.

There are benefits to be had in energy efficiencies in fixed-line and core networks, too, he added, although these would be less dramatic given they are already relatively energy efficient. The modelling shows potential improvements in fixed-access networks of 449 times, and improvements in the core network of 95 times.

The study was conducted as part of GreenTouch’s Green Meter analysis, to assess progress towards its goal. For the purpose of the report, energy efficiency was defined as the ratio of the useful traffic carried by a network and the total energy required to support that traffic over a year.

Some of the new technologies, architectures and protocols included in the 2020 modelling are small cells deployment in dense urban environments, infrastructure-sharing across operators, discontinuous transmissions during periods without traffic, dynamic allocation of resources and the GreenTouch-developed Bit Interleaved Passive Optical Network (Bi-PON) protocol.

GreenTouch will continue its work on network architectures and technologies to further the consortium’s progress and issue reports through 2015, with the next update expected later this year.

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