Growing our networks whilst reducing energy consumption

 Representation of networks
Representation of networks

We live, increasingly, in a digital-first world; and as outlined in the government’s UK Wireless Infrastructure Strategy, our demand for data is only going to increase. As we reap the benefits of a digital society - and our ‘things’ become more connected - our customers expect more from us, their network providers. So, does more data have to mean more energy consumption?

At Vodafone UK, our network accounts for around 95% of our annual energy consumption and is our biggest environmental impact. As our network continues to grow, we’re faced with a critical question: how do we decouple energy consumption and data growth, to ensure our network grows sustainably with us and we can meet our goal of net zero UK operations by 2027?

The answer lies in rationalizing and modernizing - and being open to new technologies to facilitate energy efficiency. Ironically, while technology innovation is demanding more energy from our network, it is also the key to solving our decarbonization challenges.

Rationalizing the network: out with the old…

The pace of change in our industry is rapid, and we’ve come a long way since the world’s first text message was sent over the Vodafone network 30 years ago. To make way for exciting new technologies, we must remove redundant equipment and turn off the legacy systems that no longer serve us. In the last five years, we’ve removed more than thirty energy-hungry systems, reducing our carbon emissions by 15,000 tons and our energy usage by 167 million kilowatt-hours in the process.

But rationalization is an ongoing process. You may have heard about the shutdown of the 3G network - something all UK telcos will be doing over the next year or so – to focus on 4G and 5G. Here at Vodafone, we’re working hard to ensure this will be a seamless transition for our customers. The benefits of moving to 5G networks are undeniable: beyond the technical improvements of lower latency, increased reliability and speed, 5G networks are far more energy efficient once fully utilized. In fact, we estimate 5G has the potential to be 10 times more energy efficient than 3G. For people and planet, the switch to 5G is a no brainer.

Optimization: Reviewing equipment with fresh eyes

To run any business efficiently, you must constantly review your technology assets and ensure they’re running as effectively as possible. And when they’re not performing? Being agile and open to new set-ups is key. For us, AI and machine learning are helping us to improve the energy efficiency of 11,500 radio base stations; and our Smart Sites program uses Internet of Things (IoT) on high energy usage sites, so we can manage them remotely and reduce the need for engineer visits. Already, we have 1300 sites connected.

Changes like these can have a big impact on energy saving; and it is this ‘always-on’ approach to optimization that can make an energy efficiency program so effective.

Modernization: in with the new

Becoming more energy efficient requires investment. We invest £millions in energy efficiency each year to meet increasing customer demand and to make our network as sustainable as possible. As well as removing legacy equipment and deploying innovative new technologies, we’re also focused on powering our network in the most sustainable way.

For instance, in April we installed our first on-site solar panels at a mobile telephone exchange (MTX) network site in Gloucester. The site will use electricity generated from the solar panels to reduce reliance on the national grid.

We’re also investing in UK-based renewable energy through power purchase agreements (PPAs) and ten wind and solar sites across the country will fulfil around 44% of our annual energy requirements by 2025. This is in addition to the fact that all grid electricity we use has been from certified renewable sources since July 2021. I’m also excited about our pilot of a ‘self-powering’ mobile phone mast in Pembrokeshire, which incorporates a wind turbine, solar panels and on-site battery storage. As well as environmental benefits, it could also play a role in improving mobile coverage in the UK’s remotest areas, like we’re already doing with the Shared Rural Network initiative.

There’s no quick fix to building an energy efficient network: it’s a thorough process that requires significant time, dedicated resource and cash investment, but also creativity and a willingness to try new techniques.

But I’m delighted to say that for us, it’s already paying off. Since 2019, data carried on Vodafone UK’s network has increased by around 300% while energy consumption has remained flat and carbon emissions have fallen by 77% - tangible evidence that our actions are having a positive impact. I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made so far, and we will continue to innovate in this space.

In 2023 and beyond, I believe the tech and telco industry must maintain momentum and stay focused on decoupling the link between energy consumption and data growth – and I believe 5G will play a pivotal role.

I welcome the Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy commitment to rolling out standalone 5G across all populated areas in the UK by 2030, as not only will this support the UK’s ambition to become a global science and technology superpower, but it will also help to ensure this ambition is environmentally responsible too.

We've featured the best business smartphone.