Why we need a new approach to network energy efficiency

With 5G, the mobile industry finally has an opportunity to expand traffic while reducing energy consumption across the network. However, breaking this energy curve will take more than just technology. Find out why below.

People at cross roads

Our recent report about breaking the energy curve offers a blueprint for service providers to evolve their networks towards nationwide 5G while lowering energy consumption.

In doing so, service providers can achieve something which historically has never happened before. They can finally break the network energy curve.

5G and network energy efficiency

Today’s mobile networks already consume a considerable amount of energy at a global energy cost of USD 25 billion. As we move ahead into 5G, the energy stakes look set to get even higher.

But why now with 5G?

Each new mobile generation has brought with it a rise in energy consumption. With 5G, this traditional trajectory has the potential to grow significantly.

For example, as forecast in our latest Mobility Report, mobile networks will carry four times the data of today’s networks by 2025.

This will also add new demands on service providers to increase network capacity, extend geographical coverage and deploy advanced technology use cases nationwide.

Already, many service providers expect their energy consumption to soon double. This is the result of a need to densify the network and meet increasing traffic demands, while improving their networks and rolling out new 5G frequencies. This is clearly not sustainable from a business nor environmental perspective.

But what is the way forward for the mobile industry? Is it possible to quadruple data traffic while at the same time sinking energy consumption?

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Hear Mats talking about the energy curve in the latest Ericsson News Podcast

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Shifting the mindset, breaking the curve

5G could very well provide part of the solution. It arrives as the most energy-efficient mobile standard ever, something which we at Ericsson are very proud to have had an active role in developing. However, it will take more than technology to break the curve – it will require a whole paradigm shift to how the industry evolves and rolls out future networks.

To achieve this, it all really comes down to preparing the network in the most efficient way. As we see it, there are four building blocks to this challenge:

  • preparing the network with the latest technology solutions
  • activating energy-saving software
  • building and rolling out new technologies with precision
  • operating network infrastructure in a more intelligent way

Read more about each challenge below.

Break the energy curve approach

The elements of our approach to breaking the energy curve

Prepare the network

Today, the most technologically advanced parts of the network are found in data-dense areas, such as cities, that carry medium-to-high traffic. Yet, in breaking the curve, there is value to be found right across the network.

In most cases, low-traffic areas actually account for 70 percent of the network sites, yet usually carry about 25 percent of the total traffic. On the other hand, medium-to-high-traffic areas usually account for just 30 percent of the network sites yet carry up to 75 percent of the traffic. Traditionally, the industry has focused on building out the medium-to-high-traffic sites, while neglecting the tail end of networks where capacity constraints are low.

However, low-traffic sites consume an overwhelming share of energy, while providing basic network coverage.

At large, this approach must change if service providers really want to reap the benefits of new 5G use cases such as autonomous transport and smart agriculture. These nationwide use cases demand 5G capabilities across the entire network. Although the capacity will not be high, the capabilities still need to be there.

Swapping old radio equipment with 5G-ready Ericsson Radio System equipment nationwide makes it possible for service providers to serve 5G use cases with a single software upgrade. As we found in our recent customer case studies, it could also save them up to 30 percent on overall energy consumption. When added together with the site equipment, service providers could even see a return on investment as early as three years from now.

Activate energy-saving software

Today, our different energy-saving software functionalities are already available in mobile networks and have been found to offer both significant energy and cost savings. However, we have seen that the industry is still somewhat slow to begin using these functionalities.

Why is it not happening right away? This reluctance on the part of the service provider may be based on learnings from previous activations, where user experience may have suffered as a result.

However, today’s solutions present an entirely different picture. We now see that, with today’s market solutions, it is possible for service providers to achieve the required savings without impacting their key performance indicators for user experience.

We also know that this will get even better over time. For example, there is a lot of talk today about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning which is, technically speaking, already at an advanced level. However, we know that with more data – with more experience in the networks – the algorithms will become even more precise.

That’s not to say that energy saving features won’t already provide savings today, because we see that they do. Even with existing 4G networks, we have seen examples whereby our customers have saved up to 15 percent simply by switching on energy-saving software in the network.

So, today, we see that it is possible for service providers to save energy on all existing network hardware just with a simple switch.

Engineer working on a tower

Switching on energy-saving software on existing 4G hardware could save up to 15 percent in energy costs. These figures are likely to get even higher as AI and machine learning mature.

Build with precision

One of the biggest challenges to breaking the curve will be to roll out and evolve networks with limited energy cost addition – something which, traditionally, has been challenging to achieve.

One way to do this is to build 5G with precision.

The total 5G energy cost addition will be impacted by service provider deployment strategies and equipment choice. The solution is all about using insight into network reality, such as how traffic is divided over different sites, and then deploying infrastructure based on those insights. This can create a much leaner network in the sense that service providers will not have to spend as much capital expenditure (CAPEX) and also result in a situation where operator expenses (OPEX) can also come down, some of which will be energy based.

By deploying the most appropriate hardware in each part where it is needed, service providers can serve demand, such as through Massive MIMO in denser traffic sites, and avoid over-dimensioning equipment in areas where there is less traffic. Here they should instead be looking toward leaner, versatile 5G-ready radio systems such as Ericsson Radio Systems and applying Ericsson Spectrum Sharing where both 4G and 5G traffic can be carried on the same piece of hardware.

It’s clear that, with 5G, the whole dynamic of network evolution must change in order to not only enable a reduction in network energy consumption, but also the next wave of business opportunities.

Operate site infrastructure intelligently

AI and advanced data analytics are already well integrated in many of today’s network management solutions. Yet, today, we see that they can increasingly offer more value in terms of reducing network energy consumption.

Today, there are already solutions available on the market which allow service providers to operate their site infrastructure in a much more intelligent way. The savings offered by such solutions look likely to raise the pressure on service providers to modernize existing site infrastructure, in order to reap the gains right across the network.

But where do these solutions offer good business value? It all comes back to traffic variation. As we already see, traffic can vary quite radically over a 24-hour period. As discussed above, service providers can lower the capacity on active equipment e.g. through the use of energy savings software in times of low traffic, thus reducing the power consumption of the hardware. In turn, site infrastructure intelligence also offers a possibility to better monitor and regulate passive parts of the network, such as the support-, power-, and ventilation systems. All the while, this kind of intelligent software can be managed remotely by service providers in real time.

As the industry begins to transition into a new generation of hardware and software infrastructure, service providers should already be thinking how their business and networks can benefit most from new opportunities afforded by intelligent site management systems.

Ericsson Spectrum Sharing allows service providers to run 5G on current hardware and avoid the installation of new energy-consuming hardware in less dense traffic areas

What happens next?

In coming years, more value will undoubtedly be attached to the network by way of new 5G use cases. To monetize these opportunities, the networks will need to grow denser and extend across more frequency bands. This is simply unavoidable.

However, that is not to say that the networks must also become heavier in terms of energy consumption. The reality can actually be the opposite. Today, we have the greatest opportunity yet to reduce energy costs while, at the same time, serving more traffic and monetizing more opportunities on the network. Then of course there is the critical impact which this can have in reducing emissions across the industry in line with a 1.5 degree trajectory in the Exponential Climate Action Roadmap.

That’s why, at Ericsson, we’re telling the industry to start preparing today to manage tomorrow’s network growth. Through building with precision, activating energy-saving software functionalities and operating sites in a more intelligent way, service providers can develop a sustainable business model which can deliver success both today and tomorrow.

The solutions are already here, service providers should not wait until tomorrow to deploy the inevitable.

Learn more

Read our breaking the energy curve report in full.

Listen to Mats discuss the energy curve in the latest Ericsson News Podcast.

What makes 5G the most energy-efficient standard to date? Find out in our colleagues’ 5G energy consumption and 5G energy efficiency posts.

Find out how we’re building 5G with precision together with SKT in the world’s largest 5G market, South Korea.

Learn more about Ericsson’s AI-based Energy Infrastructure Operations.

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