Quantifying network energy and sustainability

At least six main industry organizations have different ways of measuring energy efficiency and sustainability in the telecom space. Which ones are you watching?

Ruth Brown, Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks, Heavy Reading

June 6, 2023

5 Min Read
Quantifying network energy and sustainability

Mobile networks consume a lot of energy, and it is impossible to escape the resulting environmental and cost challenges. The exact energy figure is hard to tell — there are no standardized reporting metrics, which is the primary point of this article.

Across the telco industry, operators and vendors have set out clear plans to address environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, with short- and long-term projects to tackle scope 1–3 emissions (for direct and indirect carbon emissions). For operators, the solution typically involves the removal or replacement of old and inefficient technologies, using energy more intelligently in the network and sourcing renewable electricity. The lifecycle of equipment and carbon intensity of passive infrastructure and construction are also areas of focus.

Today, companies publish quarterly ESG updates that track energy use. Green networks are now also a popular track at telco conferences. The recent Big 5G Event in Austin was no exception, with keynote updates from T-Mobile, the Next G Alliance and Verizon. Of particular interest was how to standardize and quantify network energy usage. For example, this might involve tracking and apportioning energy footprints (generated across multiple ecosystem partners) to future cloud native mobile services.

Proving a network's green credentials and service footprint will require transparency and benchmarking via a standardized set of metrics. The industry must define and agree on suitable KPIs. Over the last few months, several organizations have published papers to articulate, quantify and propose the standardization of network energy intensity.

Who is talking about green KPIs?

The telco industry already reports on some KPIs, but there is variation in the methods used and between similar metrics. For example, understanding the savings in one network or for one piece of equipment could differ across operators or vendors. This is exactly why many organizations and bodies want to align and standardize energy efficiency KPIs. Here is a summary of the organizations and bodies at the heart of these activities:

  • The GSMA has been a significant driving force within the mobile sector, leading ESG metric definitions. In June 2022, its ESG Metrics for Mobile proposal detailed 10 industry-specific and actionable KPIs to drive industry alignment in common ESG metrics. The metrics fall into four main categories — environmental, digital inclusion, digital integrity and supply chain — to define ESG across mobile operator networks and their operations. These initial definitions still require full-scale industrywide alignment and buy-in, but other organizations have taken note of the GSMA's drive to define these common ESG targets.

  • The NGMN Alliance added future green networks to its strategy in 2021 and has been extremely active, championing sustainable and environmentally conscious solutions. In February 2023, NGMN published a report outlining its KPIs and target values for green network assessment. This publication is part of an initiative to address and accelerate industrywide sustainability. Some of these methodologies overlap with industry efforts by other organizations, such as the GSMA. One important observation is the relationship between QoS and energy efficiency. In particular, should service levels be lowered or compromised to achieve energy efficiency gains?

  • 3GPP added an Energy Efficiency (EE) study item within its SA5 working group in Release 17. Within SA5, several technical specifications define EE KPIs for the entire 5G system, and a study item addresses new aspects of energy efficiency for 5G (TR.28.313). Notably, the group has defined mechanisms to collect measurements via operations, administration, and management (OA&M) and standardized APIs. In later releases (18 onward), 3GPP will work with other organizations (e.g., ETSI NFV MANO) to define more accurate measurements of virtualized CPU usage and define and extend current metrics for virtual machine and cloud native network function (CNF) energy usage.

  • The Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) has produced a framework to supplement the GSMA mobile network energy efficiency KPIs and is driving sustainability, as noted by T-Mobile and Verizon at the Big 5G Event (see "T-Mobile touts 5G network sustainability, efficiency" and "6G sustainability focus shifting from energy efficiency to net zero"). Although this framework focuses on fixed telco operators, many key objectives and metrics are common across fixed and mobile. GeSI's main objectives have been to produce a pilot study to validate and fine-tune the framework, create best practices for energy efficiency and provide a toolkit to monitor energy efficiency. Collaboration across the GSMA, GeSI and other prominent industry bodies adds further weight to this area.

  • ATIS' Next G Alliance and its Green G working group is championing longer horizons to drive environmentally sustainable 6G system design. In March 2023, it produced an overview paper on KPIs for the 6G ecosystem. Identifying and characterizing social, environmental and economic drivers for future generations of wireless technology is crucial to influence deployment strategies, explained Bhushan Joshi, chair of Green G, at the Big 5G Event. ATIS will continue to work on more detailed sustainability metrics across devices and RAN, core and edge infrastructure.

  • The Open RAN MoU Group, formed by T-Mobile, Orange, TIM, Telefónica and Vodafone, published a progress update in February 2023, prioritizing energy efficiency within its report. Within the key messages around the energy efficiency of open RAN, Message 2 emphasizes the development of a cross-industry energy monitoring framework to measure power consumption and differentiate across network functions. The O-RAN Alliance has begun to study and specify network energy-saving use cases within Working Group 1, specifically investigating all required RAN counters/ KPIs for monitoring and reporting energy consumption and efficiency of open RAN nodes. Meanwhile, Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and partners are working on a UK government-funded project that aims to accelerate RAN intelligence in 5G (ARI-5G) to test and measure RAN performance, including power management and energy efficiency advancement.

What next with green networks?

To meet green network targets, the ability to measure energy efficiency using commonly understood methodologies is vital.

Standardized KPIs offer a way to consistently evaluate energy consumption and the performance of energy efficiency initiatives in telecom networks. However, defining an industry framework still requires considerable work and buy-in across the telecommunications ecosystem. If done correctly, it can enable cross-network comparisons, extend energy visibility to specific parts of the network and potentially help identify the energy consumption of end-user services.

– Ruth Brown, Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks, Heavy Reading

About the Author(s)

Ruth Brown

Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks, Heavy Reading

Ruth covers mobile network research for Heavy Reading. Key coverage areas include system architecture, core infrastructure and services, and supporting cloud technologies. Prior to joining Heavy Reading, Ruth worked in mobile and fixed network research and design for BT for over 20 years. Her research interests have included convergence, mobile QoS, network slicing, private networks, cloud native mobile core technology and automation. She has filed more than 40 patents on both real world applications and enhancements to mobile core networks. Ruth is an advocate for women in engineering.

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