50% telecom traffic surge isn’t impacting environment

Energy consumption and carbon emissions of telecom networks have remained mostly unchanged in recent weeks despite 50% increase in network traffic as a result of COVID-19 lockdown.

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% or more.

UK operator BT reports a 100% 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. Telefonica has reported a 35% data increase over its networks in Spain (26% fixed network and 48% mobile network) with no increase in electricity usage. Nordics operator Telia, with operations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reported an electricity consumption increase of less than 1% across its mobile network, despite a 20% mobile data increase. In BT, an increase in data usage outside regular working hours have been observed, probably due to a rise in consumption of streamed film series, etc.

“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 Mats Granryd, Director General, GSMA.

“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,” added Granryd.

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 data collected by ETNO and its members, in the period 2010-2018, we saw data traffic increase by 1,100%, while carbon emissions reduced by 40%, and electricity consumption increased around 10%.

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 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% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and approximately 4% of global electricity use.

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