The pressing need for ‘sustainability’ in Telco operations

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The ‘green’ imperative for Telcos

GSMA estimates that as of March 2020, there are close to 10 Billion mobile connections (including licenced cellular IoT) and this number is growing at about 5.5% every year. Some estimates put the number of connected devices at approximately 50 Billion by 2030.

This exponential growth in the number of connected devices also requires a vast network infrastructure to support it. But the big question is – how sustainable is this growth?

The UN defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. For telecom companies this ability is dependent on the environmental costs as well as the financial viability of their operations.

Data guzzling use cases require energy guzzling networks

The tremendous impact of the increase in connected devices on global power consumption is already a cause for worry. Analysts expect that ICT (personal digital devices, mobile networks, data centres, etc.)  will account for almost 1/5th of the world’s energy consumption and this will primarily be on account of the increase in number of data centres and the densification of networks as more and more towers will be required to support 5G roll-out. Telecom towers not only use electricity from the power grid but also use Diesel gen sets to ensure maximum uptime. According to a report from TRAI, in India the average fuel consumption is more than 8000 litres of diesel per tower per year for a DG set operating for 8 hours a day. With the tower density expected to increase substantially, the amount of fossil fuels required to support this growth will have a huge detrimental impact on the environment.

Data centres already consume approximately 200 terawatt hours of power each year which is more than the annual power consumption of some small countries. The growth in data traffic will also require a consequent increase in the number of data centres which will further exacerbate the situation.

The ‘green’ journey has already started

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Telecom companies recognise the challenge and are making significant efforts to address the environmental impact of the increasing connectivity. Radio access equipment at the towers is increasingly being powered through renewable energy sources such as solar power. More than 100000 tower sites in India are now diesel free and use energy efficient Lithium Ion batteries or VRLA batteries to power the sites.

Data centres have also become more energy efficient and the overall power consumption has remained stable over the last few years. Analysts point out that compared to traditional data centres which had a Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) of 2.0, new hyper scale data centres have a PUE of about 1.2 (with 1.0 being the perfect score).

The sustainability initiatives of telecom organisations are not limited to improving power efficiency. Organisations are striving to become carbon neutral with some like BT setting themselves aggressive carbon neutrality targets.

Network infrastructure providers like STL are leading from the front in meeting the challenge of ensuring sustainability in operations and STL is now the world’s first integrated optical fibre and cable manufacturer to be Zero Waste to Landfill Certified.

Profitable growth will determine the sustainability roadmap going forward

Apart from environmental sustainability, it is extremely important to also consider the financial sustainability of telecom companies. While data consumption is growing exponentially, networks can’t keep pace with this growth. The same GSMA data which projects annual growth in the number of mobile connections also shows an annual decline of about 1% in the global ARPU over the last 3 years. This has put the operational viability of telecom companies at risk with companies in emerging markets facing greater challenges.

Recent events have also brought into the limelight issues related to supply chain diversity. Companies will also need to factor in the potential disruption in global supply chains into their financial sustainability and business continuity plans and will need to work with partners that can support them from multiple locations.

And the lesson that we need to learn is that these decisions can longer be left for another day. The challenges are real, and we need to act now to ensure a sustainable and viable future for both the environment and the organisation. 

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