Sustainability in Telecoms: A Greener Path to 5G and Beyond

Stephanie Huf, SVP Chief Marketing Officer at Enea, recently contributed to a panel at Mobile Europe’s Talking Telecoms Week virtual event on the topic of sustainability. Below we share some of the key talking points from the event.

Stephanie Huf

Stephanie Huf

In recent years the climate has become an agenda-topping concern for mobile operators. The telecommunications industry consumes 2-3% of the world’s total energy. Deployment of dense 5G networks, while previous networks remain in operation, is adding to the demand, prompting operators to carefully consider their impact on the environment.

The business case for creating a sustainable path to 5G and beyond is stronger than ever. Collectively operators spend around $30 billion per annum on powering their networks, and rising energy prices are increasingly being cited in operator earnings calls as severely restricting profit and growth.

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 provider.

So, what can operators do right now to move the needle on sustainability – not just in the interests of the environment, but in the interests of their subscribers and their own financial health?

Hype and hot air?

There is a lot of noise around climate, but what action is being taken? There has been talk of “greenwashing” in the industry, with tactics such as carbon offsetting being disregarded as “hype and hot air” rather than something that will make a tangible difference on the path to sustainability. Efforts to source renewable energy are improving environmental impact, however, these initiatives do nothing to improve operators’ profitability, and can exacerbate the financial problem of runaway energy consumption.

There is broad agreement that systemic change is needed – an overhaul of infrastructure and the way the telecoms industry uses energy. But this systemic change is an expensive and long-term project, of which the benefits may not be felt for years to come.

Low hanging fruit

While long-term infrastructure changes should be pursued, there is more immediate action that mobile operators can take to drastically reduce their network-wide energy use. It all comes down to data. The amount of data traffic a network has to carry, the greater the energy load.

Today, roughly 70% 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 optimize the flow of data to make it more efficient and less resource hungry.

Wasted bytes mean wasted energy

The majority of video output from content providers is delivered at the highest available quality according to available bandwidth. Pushing ultra-high-resolution video to small screens such as smartphones and tablets is akin to watering your garden with a firehose – it’s overkill and surplus to requirements.

Those 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 pocket devices. The volume of wasted bytes is only likely to increase as 5G continues its rollout and video streams default to higher resolutions.

Enea’s traffic management solution gives operators the ability to distinguish between different types of content, allowing them to optimize video streams independent of the content provider delivering them. This means video content can be “capped” at a certain resolution, so users aren’t 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 by the Mobile Video Industry Council (MOVIC) showed that the majority (71%) of consumers actually perceived a higher quality video experience when video was optimized for their devices. If a user prefers 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. In a recent report, we revealed that this alone has the potential to reduce network-wide energy consumption by more than 10%, saving millions in energy costs for operators worldwide – approximately 10m Euros per year for a subscriber base of 10M.

Talking Telecoms Week is an annual event hosted by Mobile Europe that encourages candid conversations with operators and telco experts on ways to develop and optimize networks.


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