Why energy management is critical to 5G success

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Operators’ pursuit of growth through 5G is tied to meeting the challenge of lower, cleaner energy and practical guidance on how to achieve this

This paper explains why telco’s 5G roll-out, and their ability to monetise 5G, could be undermined by failing to address both the energy and wider sustainability issues that come with it. 5G must be deployed in an energy efficient manner to avoid spiralling costs and increased pressure from customers, investors and authorities. This report is aimed at the C-suite, but also at network operations and planners who are charged with deploying 5G, and the product and customer teams developing new 5G services that will create value and drive growth.

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5G: Designed to spur innovation and drive growth

Much has been written (not least by STL) about 5G technology being different – both in what it does and how it does it – from previous ‘Gs’. Among other things, 5G has been conceived:

  • To enable new operating models, spur innovation and introduce an explosion of tailored connectivity and tightly coupled applications (e.g. low latency, high reliability, IoT)
  • To sustain the growth in data traffic that we have already seen with 3G and then 4G

Although many operators globally have yet to launch 5G, the roll-out is gathering pace and expected to achieve significant global coverage by 2025.

Actual data traffic volumes will move to 5G networks faster than coverage or subscriber adoption. This is due to take up of new 5G services, the nature of consumer adoption cycles (earlier adopters are heavier users) and coverage concentration in more populous areas. For example, in South Korea 5G accounted for over 30% of all mobile traffic by the end of 2020, although only 15% of subscribers were on 5G and much of the country is still not covered.

STL Partners project that global 5G traffic may overtake 4G traffic as soon as 2026.

Projected 5G traffic volumes by region

The 5G energy challenge

5G networks, done right, can limit carbon emissions and even reduce the overall energy consumption of telecoms operators, but given the number of factors at play, things will not fall into place on their own.

5G can curb excess energy use…. if done right

In terms of energy required per unit of data transmitted, 5G networks are an order of magnitude more efficient than 4G networks (much of this due to the air interface, particularly MIMO arrays packing in a greater number of antennae). 5G networks can also be more ‘energy elastic’, with energy consumption more closely tracking network use: high at peak times, largely dormant at quieter times. Cloud-native 5G standalone core and virtualised RAN will make it far easier and cheaper to adopt performance improvements in hardware and software. Open RAN will spawn new commercial and operating models in RAN sharing / wholesale / neutral hosts.

However, as the higher performance and lower cost (per GB) of 5G services will result in increased use and accelerate traffic growth, this will negate some of the efficiency gains. Furthermore, to achieve coverage, 5G networks will initially represent another overlay network requiring additional equipment and energy. Due to the higher frequencies, 5G will need more cells than 4G networks and 5G cells will typically have peak power requirements higher than 4G sites. Initially at least, this power will be additional to that supporting existing networks.

Another complication is the cloud-native nature of 5G networks which means that these will run on commercial-of-the-shelf (COTS) servers. Although potentially cheaper to buy and more efficient to run than traditional telco equipment, such servers are designed to run in ‘data-centre’ technical facilities: with more specialised cooling and power requirements. Due to the nature of networks, these servers will be distributed across many, smaller ‘edge’ facilities as well as a few big ones. And, in addition to housing servers for network functions these distributed facilities may also support edge compute resources for telco customers’ 5G-enabled applications such as AR/VR.

These distributed edge sites need to be specified, equipped, commissioned, and operated differently than in the past. Failure to do so risks inefficiencies and a jump in both embedded and ongoing emissions. To compound things, these sites will not all be greenfield ones. In many instances, they will be collocated with existing equipment, or use refurbished space in central offices, branch exchanges or older self-contained technical enclosures delivered by truck.

To reduce energy consumption and OPEX at telco sites and across the telco networks, one answer would be to begin to de-commission previous generations of mobile technology. De-commissioning 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks would have a net beneficial effect on the carbon emissions from all the networks.

However, there are issues with de-commissioning, given that customers and applications rely on 2G and 3G even in advanced economies, smart meters being a key use for 2G, for example. There are also regional divergences: while many Asian countries have fully de-commissioned 2G and countries such as Germany aims to have fully de-commissioned 3G by 2022, by the end of 2019F 46% of consumers of mobile connectivity in Africa still used 2G.

This attests to a wider challenge when evaluating how telcos can reduce their carbon emissions in the Coordination Age: different regions are at very different stages of 5G deployment and face different challenges and solutions with regards to energy management as a whole.

Regions with different 5G take-up face different energy challenges

An added challenge with deploying 5G in a sustainable manner is that telcos cannot lose sight of resiliency and cost. Energy performance and sustainability goals need to be aligned with financial and operational objectives and incentives, not competing with them. We set out how this can be achieved in this study.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Preface
  • Introduction
    • The Coordination Age – a new role and purpose for telcos
    • Resource efficiency and the Coordination Age
    • 5G: Designed to spur innovation and drive growth
    • Challenge 1: The 5G energy challenge
    • Challenge 2: A rapidly changing business climate
  • How can telcos pursue growth through 5G and meet the challenges of the changing business climate?
    • Adopt energy best practice in 5G design, procurement, deployment, and operations
      • Best practice operates at multiple levels…and across them
      • Focusing action for your operator
    • Drive customers’ transition to low emissions through 5G-enabled services
      • Who to target?
      • Specific steps in driving customer efficiency through 5G
  • Conclusions and recommendations
    • Preach what you practice
    • … as well as practice what you preach
    • Recommendations for telco leadership

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