Telcos see AI as key to achieving climate goals – research

The past couple of years have certainly allowed telecoms operators to demonstrate how essential their networks are for the smooth functioning of local and global economies – especially given that so many people have been forced to work from home.

In the first weeks and months of the coronavirus pandemic, telcos were regularly issuing updates on huge spikes in data and voice traffic, as communications services became a lifeline for many.

At the same time, the use of communications tools has been hailed as a much greener option than meeting in person, while 5G is regarded as a bringer of greater efficiencies that in turn can cut carbon emissions.

Good robot: The survey revealed that most service providers see AI has critical to combating climate change.  (Source: Besjunior / Alamy Stock Photo)
Good robot: The survey revealed that most service providers see AI has critical to combating climate change.
(Source: Besjunior / Alamy Stock Photo)

However, as suggested by a recent forecast from InterDigital and ABI Research, partly due to exponential growth in the number of connected devices, 5G will "usher in aggressive growth in energy consumption" over the remainder of this decade. Last year, they say, the overall energy footprint of the global mobile industry was about 19.8 million tons oil equivalent (or Mtoe). By 2030, it will hit 51.3 Mtoe.

Telecoms industry players are increasingly aware of the challenges that much higher network traffic will bring, and they are seeking ways to counteract rising energy consumption.

On the occasion of the United Nations' COP26 climate change conference in Scotland, Nokia and GSMA Intelligence have taken the opportunity to investigate how telcos plan to tackle a variety of energy efficiency issues.

Aiming for zero touch with AI

GSMA Intelligence surveyed 103 telcos around the world and found that they "overwhelmingly view rising energy demand and costs as critical issues to their operations and their customers."

According to the research, 83% of telcos surveyed see energy efficiency as a major network transformation driver that will grow in importance as 5G is operationalized by industry; while 67% expect their energy costs to rise over the next three years based on current trends.

And it seems that many believe the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) will be critical in the fight against climate change.

Along with the use of renewables, AI energy management software is said to be central to many telco strategies to shrink their environmental footprint because it can be deployed quickly across an entire network with little to no human intervention.

According to Nokia, by using zero-touch automation, AI programs can improve energy savings by closely aligning equipment usage patterns with real-time network demands; and identifying performance anomalies in underperforming network equipment that saps energy resources and requires replacement.

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AI-powered energy solutions are expected to drive other important outcomes, such as reducing the number of on-site visits that personnel have to make to troubleshoot network issues.

Many of the survey respondents acknowledged they are still in the early planning and testing stages of getting their AI efforts off the ground with respect to energy efficiency.

The good news is that nearly 50% of respondents said they expect to achieve energy savings of 10% to 20% over the next two years, as AI energy solutions are rolled out and optimized.

Tim Hatt, head of research and consulting at GSMA Intelligence, advised telcos to deploy AI early "in order to train the algorithms and continually optimize network ops and costs over the long run."

"AI has clear and tangible benefits to improving the energy efficiency of telecom networks and is a big part of the solution in driving sustainable 5G networks," Hatt said.

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— Anne Morris, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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