Is 5G Good or Bad for the Environment?

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This will increase the demand for communication. But it is also more efficient. Three experts weigh in on the bottom line.

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According to consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, the information and communications technology industry is responsible for about 3% to 4% of global carbon-dioxide emissions, and telecom operators alone are responsible for about 1.6%. Meanwhile, global data traffic is projected to increase by about 60% per year – and handling all that traffic means the telecommunications industry will produce a lot of emissions. Boston Consulting says that by 2040, the industry could contribute up to 14% of global emissions.

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While 5G networks can be more energy efficient in transferring data – up to 90% more efficient per unit of data transferred than their 4G predecessors, a study by STL Partners and Vertiv found – 5G is more efficient in its life cycle. could also shed more energy in the U.S. as it would fuel the increased use of data centers and 5G-enabled technologies and products. Proponents of 5G sustainability say the technology will enable better tracking so that energy use can be monitored and reduced, making the technologies “greener.”

We asked three experts to look into the environmental merits of the technology: Louise Schreiber, a senior sustainability analyst at investment firm Mirova; Enrique Dans, a professor at the IE Business School with a focus on technology and innovation; and Darrell West, a vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank that examines topics such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and the future of work.

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Here are edited excerpts of the discussion.

impact of infrastructure

Businesshala: Building a new network will require more equipment and a greater reliance on data centers than in previous wireless technologies. Can you build the infrastructure to support 5G networks permanently?

M / s. Author: In cities, 5G will focus on bringing speed and capacity to new applications and growing demand. This requires the installation of a large number of small antennas to secure proper propagation. In this sense, the sustainable deployment of 5G must address a number of difficult challenges. Whether it is in the mining and refining phase of minerals or the manufacturing phase of electronic components, the sustainability risks are serious and numerous.

In addition, 5G companies need to ensure proper management of electronic waste and energy efficiency and coverage of infrastructure by renewable energy sources. The challenges remain real and some solutions such as the circular economy of electronics minerals are still virtually non-existent, but it is possible and absolutely necessary that companies map, mitigate and report on the progress they have made on all these risks.

Wealth. In: When we move to 5G, we need to put in many more cells because millimeter waves can only travel a short distance. Therefore, we need more number of smaller cell towers. When you deploy more cells, the total energy consumption of the network will increase. However, the energy consumption of a small cell is much lower than that of a conventional cell. Therefore, energy efficient efficiency may improve over time.

Second, spatial multiplexing [when multiple antennas carry multiple data streams on the same frequency band at the same time] Minimizes energy consumption as it divides it among different concurrent users.

Wealth. West: One of the virtues of the 5G world is that there is going to be a proliferation of remote sensors. We’re going to have a lot better data on environmental outcomes than ever before. You can see how different parts of 5G infrastructure are affecting the environment, air quality, water quality, electricity usage, and design the most efficient system with real-time data.

advantages and disadvantages

Businesshala: Does the energy efficiency of 5G help offset some of the environmental impacts?

M / s. Author: It is energy efficient in the sense that for a single unit of data you need to consume less power. But you can look at it both ways. It’s either I need fewer units of energy to transfer one unit of data, or for one unit of energy, I can handle more units of data. It’s like your smartphone. Your new smartphone is a lot more energy efficient. But in the end, you will charge it as often as you used to because you will use it more. Energy efficiency sounds like a reduction in energy, but it is not.

Wealth. In: With 5G and more complex networks, optimizing the network load becomes very easy. This gives you more degrees of freedom. You can orient transmission equipment to cover areas where people are typically using their equipment and save energy by not deploying them in places where there is no equipment. Another interesting feature of 5G networks that make them less energy demanding is that they can be put into so-called sleep mode. When a node has no active users, the base station goes to sleep and is not consuming any energy at that time. Network facilities that may contain routers and servers, and the software that controls the network can also be customized.

Wealth. West: It can be energy efficient if we design it properly, as we will have the tools to monitor energy use and design the most energy efficient systems. But whether we can actually achieve this depends on the implementation. We need to be aware of how to take full advantage of the tools we have and deploy them to their full potential.

Businesshala: According to Vertiv, the transition to 5G could increase total network energy consumption by 150% to 170% by 2026, with faster speeds and lower latency. Do you think it is possible to address the energy-consuming aspect of this?

Wealth. West: If we design the system the same way we do now, 5G will require more energy. But it is not necessarily so. If we have real-time analytics on data centers and how much power they are using, we can figure out ways to do things in off-peak times or move energy loads around in more efficient ways. can.

M / s. Author: I’m not sure they would be able to do that. The energy consumption typically associated with telecommunications is related to how people use their equipment and how media providers are operating. We are seeing that around 80% of the data is linked to the video. This stems from how advertising companies have developed video advertising in social media. It is on autoplay. That’s a huge additional environmental footprint for nothing really useful.

Wealth. In: At some point, we thought that the massive data centers that are being deployed everywhere would be a problem for the environment. We now see that the companies that are deploying these data centers are very sensitive to energy consumption as it becomes such a large part of their operating costs. They’re going carbon-free, they’re investing, they’re covering data centers with solar panels, they’re committed to buying from sustainable sources. The impact on the environment has not been as significant, and the benefits we are getting in terms of services now, we could not have imagined until a decade ago.

Businesshala: So in the end, is 5G bad for the environment?

M / s. Author: Is 5G going to solve climate change? No. Can 5G be developed as responsibly as possible? Yes. I can see the real benefits materializing whenever it becomes a big and major enabler of smart agriculture, smart cities, smart mobility and more because it will be so widespread and global that the benefits will outweigh the costs. But right now we are seeing the environmental cost. This will enable people and companies to consume irresponsibly.

Wealth. In: It’s not so much when we compare it with the benefits we get. The moment you start connecting everything, you can create a lot more efficient logistics, you can create a lot of tools that manage themselves better. For example, imagine that we use towers to house small meteorological stations, and we have them connected in real time and with no latency. We can get the right network to monitor climate phenomena all over the world. This would be surprising in terms of predicting a more volatile environment.

Wealth. West: It shouldn’t be bad for the environment. If humans make the right choices, we could end up in a sustainable 5G world. But it is up to the decision makers to build the network in a way that is sustainable.

Ms. Chin is a reporter for Businesshala in New York. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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