Will 6G be sustainable?

There’s been a lot of excitement around how the wireless industry can improve its own energy efficiency and how its technologies can improve the sustainability of other industries. And the incentives for this are not just environmental.

Saving energy can reduce operational expenses. Thus network operators and passive infrastructure owners are keener than ever to use power more efficiently. Sharing of infrastructure or spectrum is becoming both a financial necessity, as well as a way of limiting carbon emissions. However, whether new architectures and sharing models to make infrastructure more sustainable will make positive contributions to CAPEX reduction is open to question and right now the total cost of ownership associated with such approaches is unclear.

The regulations around the built environment where systems are deployed are increasingly focussed on the energy efficiency of buildings. At the same time, post-Covid hybrid working patterns have made it essential for commercial property owners to reduce operational costs – and cutting back on energy costs is an obvious place to start.

Then, there are off-grid rural sites running on wind and solar power. This is an ongoing story, that again combines financial need (connecting to the main grid over long distances isn’t cheap) with lower carbon generation. It also offers an alternative where the grid isn’t reliable. In countries, for example, where power outages are an issue and diesel generation is expensive and dirty, renewables may be a way forward as 5G rolls out.

But there’s another way to save energy – and it’s not just relevant to operators and infrastructure owners. In fact, many operators pitching advanced services to vertical sectors will point out that, as wireless improves business efficiency and productivity, carbon footprints are reduced.

There are already commercially deployed networks helping to automate ports, airports, car parks and street lighting that can all reduce their carbon footprints through the use of wireless. IoT deployments are already supporting drivers to reduce the time spent finding an available parking space in towns and cities. This simple solution to an age old challenge delivers both reduced emissions and less traffic jams. And IoT can generate information that AI and ML will use to help operators – and their business customers – to support even more energy-efficient strategies.

This is happening now and as cellular technologies evolve they will increasingly be used to enable automated dockside machinery, cars and cranes, wirelessly connected to do jobs and journeys in as efficient and energy-saving manner as possible.

Not only will greenness and sustainability shape the role that wireless technologies come to play for its users, but there’s also little doubt that the evolution of those technologies will be informed by imperatives associated with sustainability. Again, this is not just about a concern for the environment. Saving energy costs can benefit operators’ bottom line. It will also benefit their corporate image as CO2 footprint reporting becomes the norm.

The important point to highlight here is that energy saving and sustainability should not be seen as advantages to be associated with a 5G or 6G feature set. Environmental concerns are more important and urgent than that implies.

As we have seen, wireless technologies are already helping industry to become more efficient. What our industry needs to agree ­– at a technical and regulatory level – are more standardised implementations that reduce costs, drive scale and more predictable outcomes. At the same time, if we are serious about making networks more sustainable, we need to recognise that there’s no silver bullet that can deliver sustainability. It’s a complex challenge that requires interrogating every aspect of network design and development, which in turn will require collaboration across the ecosystem and high levels of prioritisation – for example, the biggest energy savings will almost certainly start with improvements to the core network.

In addition, putting sustainability front of mind is likely to elicit a good few unintended consequences – in the context of regulation, business models and technology development. It will also impact the evolution of standards. For example, if sustainability and energy efficiency means a closer alignment of technologies, implementation and use case, then the availability of, say, robust hybrid solutions and multiple, standardised split architectures becomes a priority.

Are there any downsides to a sustainability led vision of the future? Well, Real Wireless doesn’t expect a unified global, or even regional strategy on energy use and supply by governments, which means operators will need to adjust their energy strategy on a country-by-country, city-by-city, place-by-place basis. Flexible solutions and components in both hardware and software will be needed.

Traffic carried over networks isn’t foreseen to decline. Innovations to enhance efficiency are evolving, but what will it mean for data centres, which, despite advances in the design and energy efficiency of such facilities, are still power-hungry?

The narrative from the 6G research ecosystem that it will do a lot to help green strategies is by no means misplaced. But we can’t ignore the potential downsides. Real Wireless establishes technical frameworks to assess the performance metrics of candidate networks working alongside R&D teams in industry, there are a few years to go to establish how and if 6G fulfils its sustainability promise. Let’s make the most of this time as the engineering efforts required should not be underestimated.

*This blog is one of a series highlighting some of the issues raised by the Real Wireless paper The Road to 6G. The full paper is available here.