COVID-19 : Network Traffic Surge Isn’t Impacting Environment Confirm Telecom Operators


By Ifeoma Asika

The energy consumption and carbon emissions of telecoms networks have remained mostly unchanged in recent weeks, despite significant increases in network traffic as a result of COVID-19 lockdown measures.

The GSMA surveyed several of its large operator members to ascertain the environmental impact of the surge in services such as videoconferencing and entertainment streaming. In most cases, network electricity usage has remained flat, even as voice and data traffic has spiked by 50 o per centr more.

For example:

UK operator BT reports a 100 per cent increase in daytime traffic across its fixed broadband network. Mobile data traffic has fallen slightly since before the virus as more people connect to Wi-Fi. However, BT does see an increase in mobile data usage after the daily Downing Street briefings and the Clap for NHS Heroes on Thursday evenings. These changes did not lead to a noticeable increase in electricity use or carbon emissions, according to BT1.

Telefónica reported a 35 per cent data increase over its networks in Spain (26% fixed network and 48% mobile network) with no increase in electricity usage. There have also been increases in data traffic in the UK and Germany. However, at a lower level, and without a significant increase in electricity usage2.

The Nordics operator Telia, with operations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reported an electricity consumption increase of less than 1 per cent across its mobile network, despite a 20 per cent mobile data increase. They further say electricity use was unchanged across its fixed and core network operations. Similar to BT, an increase in data usage outside regular working hours have been observed, probably due to a rise in consumption of streamed film series, et cetera.

“As an industry we can be proud of network connectivity that is enabling societies and economies in these challenging times without increasing our environmental footprint,” said Director General of the GSMA, Mats Granryd. “Our sector will form the backbone to the future global economy and has a unique role to play in reaching a Net Zero carbon economy.”

Both mobile and fixed networks are designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. In the case of traffic spikes and peaks, the network uses in-built ‘overcapacity’ to support the extra traffic load without requiring additional power. The current data increases have also tended to be evenly distributed throughout the day, enabling easier network management.

Across the ICT sector, there are signs that the growth in data traffic has been ‘decoupled’ from energy consumption and carbon emissions during the last decade. According to data4 collected by ETNO and its members, in the period 2010-2018, we saw data traffic increase by 1100 per cent, while carbon emissions reduced by 40 per cent, and electricity consumption increased around 10 per cent.

This indicates that the expansion of the digital economy and data usage is not correlated directly to energy usage and carbon emissions. These indications are especially important as more energy-efficient 5G networks are being deployed, with the capacity to support up to 100 times more data traffic than 4G.

The ICT sector recently set a Science-Based Pathway that will allow mobile, fixed, and data centre operators to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. For example, mobile operators adopting the target required to reduce emissions by at least 45 per cent by the end of the decade.

The total life cycle carbon footprint of the ICT sector is estimated at approximately 700 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e): of this 170 MtCO2e is from the telco sector, 190 MtCO2e is from the manufacture of user devices, 190 MtCO2e is from the use of user devices and the remainder for data centres and enterprise networks6. This is equivalent to around 1.4 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions and approximately 4 per cent of global electricity use.

Mobilising the industry on climate action

The GSMA is working with participating operators and the international community, climate experts, and third-party organisations to advance industry progress, establish best practices, and support disclosure and target setting.

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