Reducing telecom’s carbon footprint

This article was originally published by The Fast Mode.  


Let’s be transparent. While telecom’s new sustainability focus is commendable, our industry is just beginning its collective journey. But, instead of focusing on what we haven’t done, we must focus on what we can do moving forward. Global internet carriers have a responsibility to facilitate ESG initiatives, with networking’s carbon footprint amounting to 3.7 percent of global emissions [1], rivaling the airline industry.

Sustainable networking requires us to slightly change how we build and operate our networks and conduct business. However, humans are instinctually averse to even minor changes, so this process will not be a walk in the park. In turn, internet carriers must take small steps first if we hope to reduce our collective carbon footprint over the next few decades. Sustainable networking is a long-term journey that’s never truly finished; it won’t happen overnight.

Fortunately, many carriers are now defining actionable sustainability goals. These may include reducing network waste through circularity and lifecycle management or lowering scope 1 emissions and achieving Net Zero status [2] in accordance with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Of course, technological innovation is key to meeting these goals, but it is not telecom sustainability’s sole component. Still, innovation is important in this area, especially amid the energy crisis.

Sustainable networking to reduce energy costs

Network operation costs are currently only increasing in every aspect, including energy. As a result, sustainable networking is crucial to address inflationary pressures as it can reduce energy costs and consumption. The global internet carrier Arelion recently released an enterprise networks energy report supporting this. The report found that nearly a third of U.S. enterprise business leaders are losing sleep over rising energy costs. However, 73 percent of U.S. enterprise business leaders are increasing their energy-efficient network investments to combat the energy crisis.

There are many technological innovations to help our industry achieve its sustainability goals, including network automation [3], cloud computing and coherent pluggable components. Cloud computing can minimize enterprises’ power consumption by up to 87 percent [4], as much of enterprises’ non-latency sensitive data can be moved to the cloud with minimal impact on performance and scalability. So, as both operators and enterprises look to decommission power-consumptive legacy data systems, they can implement cloud-native IT operations infrastructure. Coherent pluggable components are also promising, as they can reduce power consumption and costs while increasing capacity to meet enterprises’ optical wave service requirements.

Energy-efficient equipment is vital for sustainable networking, but network operators and enterprises must remember the little things, too. Telecom sustainability isn’t just about new shiny gear that enables high-quality connectivity. It’s a holistic strategy that comprises softer aspects, including ESG initiatives that support operational sustainability.

ESG initiatives – focusing on the little things

It’s important to include internal business operations in our ESG initiatives in addition to these technological innovations. First, companies must raise their employees’ awareness of their daily sustainability impact. Corporate initiatives for properly sorting, recycling and disposing of office waste are a good start. Additionally, as the pandemic’s traffic explosion proved, many global networks can support remote work indefinitely. We in the telecom business have worked hard to provide great user experiences in online video meetings to make them a good solution compared to physical meetings. We’ve seen a big change in quality here over the last couple of years. As a result, companies can encourage their employees to conduct remote video meetings. Do you need to purchase a plane ticket or drive your high-emissions car to attend that meeting, or can it be completed via Zoom? If you must attend physically, can you travel by train?

To support this emphasis on sustainable business travel, companies can create internal platforms to calculate the carbon emissions of different transportation methods, helping to promote transparency and conscientiousness. As they increasingly focus on sustainability, companies can also electrify their company car fleet, provide places for employees to store their bicycles safely or establish offices closer to public transit to reduce commuter cars’ carbon emissions.

Carriers can also audit their data center partners’ and equipment vendors’ renewable energy and sustainability strategies to emphasize that these partners must take sustainability seriously if they want carriers’ business. Fortunately, some data centers are making impressive strides, reducing emissions by up to 80 percent [5]. Carriers can also take small steps here, like asking if their vendors can use less plastic packaging and more sustainable shipping methods. Carriers must include their partners in their journey because we must all work together toward sustainability. These little things are only a small fraction of what we can do. These are just examples of where the journey could start – we know there are thousands of other small steps we can take, too.

Enabling green networking through collaboration and transparency

Telecom sustainability is difficult because it’s a new focus, meaning there aren’t many benchmarks for our efforts. This lack of standardization is challenging, as a mobile operator’s sustainability strategy may differ from a fixed line operator’s strategy.  Additionally, an internet carrier must make some assumptions when measuring its network’s carbon footprint, as that footprint comprises so much more than just your own operation and network. You need to include your energy suppliers, your vendors and partners and even your customers in the measurements. As a result, we must be transparent in our assumptions when measuring and publishing data as no two networks are the same.

Our industry’s distributed, collaborative nature makes it difficult to measure our emissions. But this is also our strength because telecom’s collective sustainability journey requires cross-company collaboration and transparency. As more operators publish their emissions data, we can learn from each other to forge the best path forward. We still have a long way to go, and ambitious goals are important. But we must first focus on the small steps to make big strides toward green networking and ESG goals that connect a sustainable future to the benefit of everyday people that rely on global networks.


Mattias Fridström, Chief Evangelist