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Sustainability Through Innovations in Mobile Communications

By Chris Pearson, President 5G Americas – (December 2023)

As the world confronts the challenges posed by climate change, the telecommunications sector is emerging as a key player in the global pursuit of environmental sustainability. This critical journey is characterized by a concerted effort from mobile network operators (MNOs) and vendors, who are setting ambitious targets to reduce their carbon footprints and strive for Net Zero emissions. This shift is not just a response to global demands but a proactive strategy, fundamentally reimagining the operation and power dynamics of mobile networks.

I’m pleased that 5G Americas is offering a comprehensive account on how network operators and managers are grappling with sustainability in our latest white paper “Energy Efficiency in Mobile Communications Networks”. It is an important function of 5G Americas to demonstrate the value and impact of 5G technologies throughout the world, and especially in the Western hemisphere. To that end, there is also a shorter briefing paper that covers the highlights of the paper, as well.

Given the tremendous amount of mobile data being generated by modern enterprises today, there is a significant impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the entire scope of emissions in the value chain, where energy efficient networks can play a part.

Figure 1. Overview of GHG Protocol Corporate Standard scopes of emissions across the value chain

At the heart of these sustainability efforts lies the Radio Access Network (RAN), where significant energy conservation advancements are being made. The integration of AI and machine learning into RAN operations has led to the development of enhanced techniques that significantly reduce energy consumption. For instance, micro-sleep techniques in 5G networks, particularly effective in 5G-Advanced, utilize leaner physical layer designs to conserve energy during idle periods. This approach is a marked improvement over previous generations, where always-on signals in 4G LTE networks limited cell sleep opportunities.

Figure 2. Network Power Consumption Split by Domain. Source: Nokia Bell Labs (based on NGMN data).

Further, in the spectrum frequency domain, the transition from 4G to 5G brought in a more flexible use of spectrum, supporting multiple different “sub-carrier spacings” that join and mix different bands to create much larger channel capacity. This has created a high peak to average power ratio (PAPR) challenge, particularly at higher carrier frequencies. 5G-Advanced and future generations like 6G aim to enhance waveform flexibility, so networks can improve the energy efficiency of the system and enable the coexistence of different waveforms serving many different purposes.

The transformation in system architecture is also playing a pivotal role in achieving energy efficiency. Innovations such as network slicing, virtualization, and Open RAN are creating networks that are not only more flexible and scalable but also significantly more energy efficient. Network slicing allows operators to tailor network resources and functionalities to specific use cases, optimizing energy consumption across RAN, mobile core, and transport segments. This approach involves classifying endpoints into the lowest consumption power class that meets use case requirements, using statistical learning methods to minimize power utilization. In network slicing, the precision in allocating resources and managing power consumption is vital for reducing overall network energy consumption while maintaining performance and service quality.

Virtualization and the move towards a cloud-native 5G core are other crucial elements in this architectural shift. These technologies allow for scalable energy consumption with network load, using energy-optimized cloud platforms and edge components. For example, in a virtualized RAN (vRAN), concepts like elastic scaling and resource pooling enable operators to use resources efficiently. Elastic scaling allows the network to dynamically adjust resource allocation, placing Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) into deep sleep states during low demand. Resource pooling, especially beneficial in centralized RAN (CRAN) architectures, further optimizes resource use by sharing vRAN resources across different areas based on traffic movement.

Overall, optimizations at the application layer of mobile networks are leading to substantial reductions in traffic volumes and, consequently, energy usage. AI/ML-driven network optimization services are playing a crucial role in this area, dynamically managing network resources to effectively reduce energy consumption. These services utilize real-time data and predictive analytics to optimize resource allocation, such as frequency bands within the RAN, to match actual demand. By doing so, they ensure that network operations are not only efficient but also environmentally sustainable.

The integration of renewable energy solutions in telecom infrastructures is also becoming increasingly vital. Site solutions that enable renewable energy integration, such as solar panels and wind turbines, are being prioritized to meet the energy demands of mobile networks sustainably. However, with renewables, it is important to keep in mind the varying levels of power generation over time (both during the day and year). For instance, the chart below demonstrates the degree of monthly variability for solar versus typical energy usage. 

Figure 3. Monthly energy usage vs solar generation. Source: Motive Energy Telecommunications Group, Inc.

Additionally, the deployment of IoT solutions in mobile communications is enabling industries like manufacturing and agriculture to achieve greater energy efficiency. These IoT solutions exemplify the role of connectivity in enhancing operational efficiency across various sectors, thus contributing to broader sustainability goals.

Finally, the deployment of small cells and multi-TRP (Multiple Transmission Reception Point) base stations, particularly in the context of 5G, is crucial for energy-efficient network designs. Operating at lower power levels than traditional macro base stations, these technologies are essential in creating networks that are not only more efficient but also capable of addressing the unique challenges of 5G frequencies. Additionally, innovations in in-building wireless systems, such as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) and small cells, are addressing the challenges of building penetration for new 5G frequencies and the broader need for energy conservation in building design and operation.

As the telecommunications sector continues to evolve, its proactive approach to energy efficiency and sustainability is setting a new standard for other industries. I am extremely proud to work in this collaborative industry that is embracing innovative technologies and strategies that are making a significant contribution to the global sustainability effort.    

-Chris

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See what mobile network operators are doing to drive energy-efficient, sustainable networks to combat climate change.

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