5G will help create a greener world

5G is more than just fast and fat broadband. It’s the start of a world with greener mobile networks.

Johannesburg, 31 Mar 2020
Read time 3min 50sec
JP de Villiers, Account Manager, Supermicro
JP de Villiers, Account Manager, Supermicro

In the early 2000s, energy experts sounded alarm bells. At the growth rate of data centres at that time, the world would soon be giving most of its electricity to keep these technology hubs running. But this hasn’t happened. Despite a massive explosion in data centre numbers over the past two decades, the predictions of doom didn’t materialise. Today, data centres consume around 2% of the planet’s power – which is still an astronomical amount, but not everything.

Were the experts wrong? No, their predictions would have been entirely accurate. What instead happened is the efficiency of data centres improved manifold. More machines could be fitted into less space, and these systems started using increasingly power-efficient technologies.

Technology is closely linked to the improvement of our world. As the need for greener efficiencies increases, technology systems must improve their power consumption. Such changes are usually introduced through new evolutions – and in the mobile world, that green evolution is arriving through 5G.

5G’s energy efficiency isn’t just for green credentials. Energy bills can consume 20% to 30% of a network’s opex, according to the GSMA. As demand for more and faster data grows – not just among consumers, but also IOT devices – networks have to cut costs and look to 5G to help.

Going green

Doesn’t 5G mean more traffic at higher speeds, and won’t it require more base stations? Both are true. But, as JP de Villiers, Account Manager at Supermicro, points out, current networks leave a lot on the table: “With 4G networks, customised proprietary hardware tends to limit re-use. Also, the protocols have not been designed to reduce or limit traffic when the network is idle. This creates unnecessary energy consumption. Currently, there are two options that MNOs can follow to reduce energy use. Expand alternative energy sources to offload the primary power grid, and optimise network loading to reduce energy consumption.”

Networks have been investigating the use of alternative energy sources. But the real gains lie in improving the technologies they use. 5G ushers in several new standards and protocols that will drastically reduce the carbon footprint of mobile networks.

5G networks are likely to drive a dramatic increase in mobile traffic. They are, though, also designed to be more energy-efficient than their predecessors and thereby reducing carbon footprints. Some of these include resource-saving systems, and free-air cooling already supports reduced energy consumption.

“5G equipment is more efficient and could consume only 10% of the power compared to 4G. There is an expectation that 5G networks will have an increase in the number of small cells and the rise of massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antennas. However, in the aggregate, energy consumption should be reduced. Also, the 5G radio protocol has idle and sleep modes that reduce consumption when the network is lightly loaded. And cloud-native means compute capacity can be dynamic, spinning up workloads and capacity only when needed.”

What about the need for more 5G stations? 5G’s incredible performance stems from using a millimetre wavelength, in contrast to centimetre-wavelengths used by older mobile transmissions. But millimetre signals do not travel as far as 3G or 4G, which means more sites – called microcells – are needed to propagate 5G.

On paper, this suggests more power consumption. But, De Villiers points out, it’s the opposite: “These small cells have lower transmit powers than macro base stations. There will be more base stations, yet they are more unaffected relative to a macro cell and use less energy. So, one offsets the other.”

5G increases data traffic while bringing down energy costs. It’s not merely a leap in technology, but a new benchmark for energy-efficient networks. Beyond that, 5G will help usher in an era where technology can help everyone become more efficient and reduce their carbon footprint:

“5G support for massive machine-type communications, ultra-low latency and higher throughput will be crucial enablers for smart cities, smart agriculture, better sensing, more intelligent equipment with predictive maintenance. These will lead to significant productivity improvements across all industries, generating real green advantages.”

See also