Marek’s Take: Industry can’t wait for 6G to reduce energy usage, emissions

Marek's take

Sustainability is quickly becoming a term that goes hand-in-hand with 6G. In fact, the title of this week’s virtual Brooklyn 6G Summit is “Path Towards a Sustainable 6G World.” But 6G isn’t expected to become commercially available until 2030 and that means it won’t be widely deployed around the world until at least 2032 or later.

The difference between 5G and 6G, according to Balazs Bertenyi, principal standardization architect at Nokia, is that 6G is being designed from the onset to be sustainable while 5G was designed for performance. “After the fact, we figured out some elements of 5G fit really well with sustainability but it was a by-product,” Bertenyi said during his presentation at the Brooklyn 6G Summit.

But with climate change rapidly becoming an urgent global crisis, what can the mobile industry do today to get the most impact quickly? Bertenyi suggested that the industry focus on user equipment and its power consumption, noting that 47% of all emissions are attributed to user devices. “If we want to exploit the possibilities for sustainable architecture, we need to take it to the core of design.” And he added that the industry needs to quickly change its mindset regarding sustainability. “It has to be an integral part of the design from the get-go,” he said.

Long way to go
Turning an industry that is laser-focused on increasing wireless network usage by accommodating more bandwidth and delivering faster network speeds is not going to be an easy task.

According to Kimberley Parsons Trommler, head of Thinknet 6G, a 6G think tank funded by the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs, Regional Development and Energy, the wireless industry should consider how it can benefit society. “The wireless industry needs to act as if the main goals for 6G are human centered,” Trommler said during her keynote address at the Brooklyn 6G Summit.

And while she praised the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, noting that the NextG Alliance found that ICT solutions have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15% by supporting other industries and helping them reduce their emissions, she urged the industry to look within and figure out how it can reduce its overall emissions as well.

In the U.S., both Verizon and AT&T have set goals of being carbon neutral across their entire operations by 2035. And T-Mobile has said that it has nearly met its goal of using 100% renewable energy across the company and also has a goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 95%.

However, globally it’s another story. According to the GSMA’s 2021 Mobile Industry Impact Report on Sustainability, about 31% of mobile operators by connections worldwide and 36% of operators by revenue worldwide have set carbon reduction targets to be net zero by 2050. “The mobile industry is taking this seriously but there is still some commitment missing,” Trommler said, noting that two-thirds of the mobile industry have not yet committed to being net zero by 2050.

Perhaps one way of getting more wireless operators on board is to award them for their commitments to sustainability. Ralf Bendlin, principal member of the technical staff at AT&T Labs, suggested that if operators tout their “green” credentials by talking about their sustainability efforts and measuring those efforts in a cohesive way that can be understood by consumers, wireless subscribers may start choosing their network operators by the strength of their green credentials.

No more unlimited
However, Thinknet 6G’s Trommler suggests an even more radical solution – moving away from unlimited rate plans.

Trommler said that communications networks can’t grow exponentially forever and that network operators should start shifting consumption patterns of users instead of focusing on how to increase bandwidth. “We need to charge for usage again,” she said, adding that getting consumers addicted to flat-rate usage and always-on connectivity was wrong. “I postulate that we must get growth under control if we want the network to remain stable and reliable and resilient.”

I suspect Trommler’s solution won’t get much support from the wireless industry. However, I hope that the discussions at the Brooklyn 6G Summit prompt some more serious consideration as to what the wireless industry can do today to thwart the impacts of climate change and not wait for the next-generation of wireless technology to be deployed before it acts.