Dirty data: reducing the Internet carbon footprint

Monday, December 20 2021

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More and more organizations realize the importance of sustainability and integrating sustainability into their business strategy. From a business perspective, sustainability is defined as doing business without negatively impacting the environment, community, or society as a whole. Organizations are making the shift to be more sustainable, in part, due to consumer demand. Consumers are becoming more aware of the impact their choices and lifestyles have on the environment and are looking for service providers making strides to reduce their eco-footprint and their draw on natural resources for energy.

How Does a Networking Company Become More Sustainable?

The European Commission for Climate Action has put out a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent, increasing a share for renewable energy at least 32 percent and working towards a 32.5 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. What does this mean for a networking company such as Telia Carrier? Where can we work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

One example is the draw from Internet usage. Internet traffic was up over 38 percent in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, with in-home data usage up from 12 gigabytes to 16.6 gigabytes. This significant increase doesn’t come without an impact on natural resources, with many not considering this impact as it isn’t immediately visible. Every time you use the Internet you consume data, data that needs to be produced, stored and made available; data that has to be transferred to your device.

The Internet requires physical machines, computers and servers where data is stored, the physical data centers where these machines are maintained, and finally, the telecommunications company that provides that data. In addition to the physical housing of data that needs to be transferred, the energy needed to power these resources are a draw on the environment. Keeping the Internet up and running is imperative, but we need to improve the energy unitization and reduce the energy used to store and transfer the data.

How Internet Usage Impacts the Environment

Let’s use an example to help understand how Internet and data usage affects the environment. Every time you perform a Google search, stream a film or a show, send an email or listen to a song, a server has to process and output data to another server that will then transmit it to your device, using electricity and, in most cases, fossil fuels. Global electricity consumption by the Internet is considerable.  According to an article in The Guardian, “the carbon footprint of the Internet uses around 300 million tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to every person in the UK flying to America and back twice over.”

Steps Telia Carrier is Taking to Improve Sustainability

In our 2020 Enterprise Networking Report, we reported that 80 percent of enterprises say a supplier’s commitment to sustainability features at some point in the selection process, with 38 percent eliminating candidates at the earliest stages if they fail to make the grade on environmental responsibility. Ninety-five percent would pay more to secure a sustainable supplier, with 44 percent willing to pay a premium of between 10 and 15 percent. Providers most able to satisfy the call for high network performance, environmental sustainability and customer service will be those most able to take their customers to the next stage of WAN evolution. These providers will be seen as critical partners for sustainable business growth and development, rather than as “just” suppliers on the periphery.

One example of how Telia Carrier has aided the shift towards greater sustainability has been by connecting new facilities which make efficient use of sustainable power and enabling our customers to relocate their storage and compute workloads there.  The Nordic region was an early leader in this area with a focus on green energy, the lowest electricity prices in the EU and an opportunity to receive payment for heat recovery.   With electrical power coming primarily from hydro and nuclear sources, together accounting for 80 percent of all electricity production in the area. The remainder comes largely from wind and co-generation of heat and power.

We see this trend continuing in other North American markets like Montreal, Hillsboro and Phoenix, providing a compelling opportunity for an energy-intensive industry to source cheap electricity with a low carbon footprint whilst operating within acceptable latency limits.

We continue connecting and working with data centers that source more sustainable power options—such as the recent partnership with Switch in Las Vegas. The Switch campus in Las Vegas, NV, runs on 100 percent green power and renewable energy from solar and hydro sources. This effort has been recognized by Greenpeace and its latest Clicking Clean Report, where Switch scores A grades across the board.

We can also support sustainability from a platform perspective. If we continue to rely on the builds of the past and the way we’ve always done things, including legacy cost structures, routing silicon, operational paradigms, tools and more, we will continue to fall short in not only meeting bandwidth requirements but also doing so with increased power, rather than looking at ways we can reduce energy consumption and thereby reduce fossil fuel usage. We must work to automate operations and reduce complexity to onboard new technologies faster.

In addition, we can take the lead to introduce open optics and open line systems. Open and disaggregated optical networks provide a framework for commissioning and operating alien wavelengths uniformly as the default deployment paradigm.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which Telia Carrier is working to become more sustainable, and we will examine each of these more in depth in future blogs within this series. Consumers are looking for organizations to be more sustainable and we at Telia Carrier are working hard to fulfil that mission.


Art Kazmierczak, Head of Global Business and Network Development