5G – an emerging energy challenge


5G is set to lead to increased energy use as the number of users and the associated infrastructure grows.

5G appears set to join other 21st century technologies that are transformative, such as bitcoin mining, artificial intelligence and cloud computing/data centres, but also energy hungry.

In the case of 5G, it is not that the technology itself is energy inefficient. Over time, each successive generation of mobile technology has become more energy efficient measured in terms of kilowatthours per gigabyte.

The challenge is the growth in use cases, which is set to increase the energy use and costs for operators, according to a new study from GSMA Intelligence, the intelligence arm of the global mobile operators association GSMA.

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Currently energy use accounts for the majority of network costs, almost a quarter of the total behind ‘selling, general and administrative’ (SGA). In turn this usage accounts for the majority of operators’ overall energy usage, approaching 90% or more in the case of the largest operators.

“New 5G use cases and the adoption of mmWave will require more sites and antennas. This leads to the prospect of a more efficient network that could paradoxically result in higher emissions without active intervention,” the report says.

“Combined with the rising costs of spectrum, capital investment and ongoing maintenance/upgrades, this means energy saving measures in network operations are necessary rather than nice to have.”

The report, 5G energy efficiencies: Green is the new black, says that mobile data traffic, estimated at 6.4GB per user per month in 2019, is forecast to grow threefold on a per-user basis over the next five years, driven by the mix effect of LTE and 5G upgrades in emerging and advanced economies, particularly the US and China. These technologies are expected to account for 60% and 20% of the global mobile connections base respectively by 2025.

The further challenge for operators is decarbonisation, although the majority of operators have yet to put in place reporting targets. Verizon and Vodafone, for example, have set targets to reach net zero by 2040. Telefónica has committed to this status for its top four operating markets by 2030.

The report identifies several measures to improve efficiency alongside technical improvements to reduce energy leakage as power passes through the network phases. These include improved energy consumption and battery life of mobile devices, new lithium-ion battery solutions and cooling systems at site-level, the use of AI-driven software to maximise sleep states in access networks, the sunsetting of more energy inefficient legacy 2G and 3G networks and long-term purchasing agreements for renewable energy.

The big picture for operators of ultimately reducing emissions to net zero depends on wrapping energy efficient technologies into a broader ‘green’ strategy that encompasses all facets of operations, the report advises – a recommendation as applicable to other sectors as to mobile operators.