Published April 9, 2021
It’s already underway: 5G has rolled out in France. 5G Respects Carbon Budgets and Digital Power, Is This Feasible? Here are some ways to think about it.
After sharing frequency bands in September 2020, phone operators began deploying 5G in 2021. 5G, for “the fifth generation of mobile phones,” provides better speed and much less latency than 4G. Its publication is justified by the risk of saturation threatening telephone networks, in the face of the increase in uses.
Digital, a growing sector
Digital is a growing sector and 5G is a good operating case. according to A study published by the Transformation Project, The digital sector is growing 6% annually. This growth will double energy consumption by 2030. 5G will play a major role in this growth. In fact, switching to 5G will require the entire smartphone fleet to be replenished. An additional 1 billion smartphones are expected in 2025 compared to today.
5G will develop new uses as connected objects. It is estimated that there are 10 billion objects connected today and that there will be 30 billion by 2030. The manufacture, use and recycling of these things has a strong carbon and energy balance. The emergence of these connected objects, as well as the increase in mobile device usage and the increasing consumption of video clips, will lead to a sharp increase in data traffic. It is estimated that data traffic could increase by 30 to 59% by 2026. This will lead to an increase in energy consumption.
However, if we are to hope to reduce global warming to 2 ° C by 2100, every sector must reduce its emissions by 5% annually, and digital technology is no exception! Is deployment of 5G respectful of climate commitments possible? Is it possible to build adequate and effective digital governance? The French government decided to publish this technology without applying any comment or prior studies on the environmental impacts of the 5G network. However, it is not too late for a reasonable 5G deployment. We give you more details.
Evaluate the importance of the 5G network and its specific uses
As the authors of the Shift Project study explain, it’s about assessing the relevance of new technology like 5G and the new uses it allows. In the context of a tight carbon budget, we cannot develop new technologies just because we are capable of them. The new technologies deployed must be essential to us.
To assess the importance of technology, we can visualize the balance with the downside, environmental costs and the plus, societal benefits and opportunities for energy transition. Societal benefit is assessed by asking whether the technology is realistic and where the infrastructure will be needed. If we take the example of remote surgery, which has been cited a lot in the debate about 5G, we can ask whether it is realistic today to have an operation at home, what robotic surgeon will we need and where these robots should be deployed. Once the balance is done, we look at the net effect. For a decision to deploy a technology, this net effect must be positive. This evaluation should be done systematically for each technique.
Solutions for rational governance for 5G networks
Is relying on increased energy efficiency enough?
Energy efficiency means less energy is used while doing the same procedure. We can say that this increased energy efficiency may be sufficient to reduce the carbon footprint of 5G networks. The equipment is more and more efficient. Will this allow digital technology to fulfill France’s climate commitments? Energy efficiency is actually increasing: between standard 4G and today’s 4G, energy savings doubled by 2 and doubles by 10 when the generation changed.
But we must not confuse the power gain on a piece of equipment with the power gain on the grid. The equipment works optimally when it is at the saturation point. However, the telephone equipment is operating at 15-20% of its capacity. This reduces energy gain. In addition, the higher the frequency of the waves and the greater the strength, the smaller the range. So it will be necessary to condense the network with 5G, to double the equipment. If the device consumes less but there is more, then no increase in power is observed. The authors of the transformation project study concluded that the energy efficiency of phones is advancing rapidly. But it is progressing at an insufficient rate to compensate for the increase in traffic.
3 major hubs of a logical 5G network
The authors of the Transformation Project study made three observations on the current governance of the 5G network. Then they suggest 3 solutions to tackle it.
The first observation is that there is a political debate, but it is polarized. To respond to this, coordinated governance must be put in place that includes public authorities, regulators, economic actors, and civil society. At the regional level, elected officials should be given the opportunity to organize public consultations to identify needs. Together, the different actors in the community will be able to agree to publish. At the European level, coherent governance bodies must be developed at the European Union level.
The second observation is that propagation pathways require operational insight. In response, we must create sustainable operating, technological and economic models. This includes, for example, extending the life of the devices, enhancing the value of the second hand, avoiding automatic videos or continuous streaming, and reducing the quality of the videos. Regarding this last point, Arcep (French Electronic Communications and Post Regulatory Authority) requested some broadcast platforms to reduce the quality of the videos to cope with the increase in traffic due to the first booking. This drop in quality did not lead to any complaints from users and resulted in network satisfaction.
A final note is the need for quantitative reasoning. Digital management tools and methodologies must be developed. First of all, we must set numerical targets according to the 2 ° C path. Next, we must develop tools to assess the carbon and energy impact of digital technology. Finally, it is imperative to develop monitoring tools that make it possible to measure the effectiveness of digital governance and to adjust it to achieve the goals.
What is the environmental impact of the 5G network?
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