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Planning is Crucial for the Sustainability of the RAN

Author: Shiv Putcha

A few weeks after Mobile World Congress 2024, the dust is settling on news flows from and prior to the event. Unsurprisingly, there were several major themes from MWC24, the biggest of which was linked to artificial intelligence (AI), its offshoots like GenAI and their relevance to the telecom industry. But despite AI being the biggest buzzword, there were plenty of other themes that were in evidence.

Sustainability was one of the major themes at the show. There is no question that sustainability is a hot topic within the telecom industry but at MWC24, it seemed that sustainability was embedded into overarching messaging, but it was not quite the centerpiece. This was somewhat curious given that overall industry awareness of sustainability concerns are now quite widespread. Or perhaps, and much more likely, sustainability is no longer a buzzword. Rather, the industry has already moved into an execution phase.

5G momentum must be met with increased energy efficiency

5G today has really strong global momentum with both commercial and planned deployments. 5G has become widely deployed around the world and much faster than previous generations of cellular technology.

As of Q2, 2023, GSMA Intelligence is tracking 238 operators in 94 markets have launched mobile 5G. Several more launches are planned for the next few months through mid 2024.

But it’s not all smooth sailing. On the one hand, 5G is scaling rapidly and will hit 25% of total cellular connections by 2025. But on the other hand, there is an inherent paradox in that there is a hard tradeoff with surging data consumption from strong adoption of 4G LTE as well as 5G services. The surge in data traffic will drive energy costs sky high unless something is done to fundamentally change the current paradigm.

This is where sustainability concerns have come to the forefront of consciousness for telecom operators around the world. With revenue pressure at the top line becoming an increasing concern, profitability is increasingly linked to better operating performance and lower expenses. Energy efficiency is the benchmark that most have zeroed in on but energy efficiency for telcos must be approached in a holistic manner. It will not come from one or two, but rather a variety of sources, including new spectral and network efficiencies, sunsetting of 2G/3G networks, and greater use of renewables.

The RAN is lowest hanging fruit to tackle energy efficiency

As we look across the globe, the transition to 5G is well underway. In some places, the second wave of 5G CAPEX has already begun as we look at upgrades to Standalone and eventually 5G Advanced. This has major implications for the RAN, not only with new sites required but also densification to support growing data traffic. The tradeoff naturally is increased energy consumption in the aggregate, even if the per bit rate is lower for 5G. Research from GSMA Intelligence shows energy consumption by the RAN as over 80% of total network consumption. That is a very big “nut to crack”. How do operators go about planning this transition with a view to driving sustainability into the RAN?

Energy consumption in the RAN is being sourced from a number of areas, with the majority, 73%, coming from the traditional grid, while 21% comes from renewables and 6% from diesel. European telecom groups continue to build on their early lead from both an energy efficiency perspective as well as the proportion of energy consumption coming from renewable energy sources. North America comes in second with significant investment in recent years, while Africa and Asia are playing catch up.

GSMA Intelligence tracks industry-level progress on energy efficiency through the Telco Energy Benchmark study. During 2023, GSMA Intelligence built a dataset based on 65 networks and 1.6 billion connections. As there are no single metrics to measure energy efficiency, GSMA Intelligence is using a combination of 4 KPIs. But to highlight just one, our sample shows that operators used an average of 0.15 kWh of energy to transfer 1GB of data across the network.

There are already a number of initiatives being undertaken to improve energy efficiency in the RAN. These include site simplification and physical modernization, spectrum refarming and user migration to more efficient networks, using highly integrated hardware, adoption of advanced cooling systems and now even using AI and other techniques to optimize energy consumption.  

GSMA Intelligence’s Energy Efficency benchmark report can be downloaded here

The right planning tools can go a long way in tackling energy efficiency in the RAN

As mobile operators, whether they are greenfield or brownfield, go about making decisions about their RAN, there are a number of considerations that must be taken into account. The first priority for operators is, of course, coverage. In other words, how to maximize coverage as well as capacity with available resources. But now, the additional layer of complexity that has entered the calculus is how to maximize coverage and capacity with sustainability in mind. For example, for a brownfield operator, if they need to upgrade a site to 5G, or even deploy a new site for 5G altogether, what are the considerations and tradeoffs on energy efficiency that they need to account for.

Similarly, for operators, understanding the RAN’s energy consumption during peak loads and forced sleep modes is crucial. Companies like EDX Wireless offer products like EDX’s SignalPro, where these scenarios can be accurately modeled for any base station model, offering precise metrics on energy consumption and Quality of Service (QoS) for end users. EDX Wireless uses the EARTH framework (Energy Efficiency Evaluation Framework (E3 F)) 3GPP [TR36.814R9] for the quantification of energy savings in wireless networks. This involves assessing the power consumption of the entire system, considering each component of the base station contributing to energy consumption. Additionally, it provides the energy factor for both loaded and unloaded networks. It is also important to model accurately across different base station models and technologies. EDX Wireless’s method incorporates methodologies and metrics that enable comparisons between different base station models, technologies and end user QoS. The throughput to each user can be forecasted when cells are in and out of sleep modes, hence allowing for intelligent optimization decisions.

EDX Wireless also allows for the usage of a digital twin to allow network engineers to simulate the conditions under which a particular site would work, with energy efficiency metrics layered into the analysis. The ability to plan in a simulated environment before field work can go a long way towards improving energy efficiency in the RAN. Similarly, planning tools like EDX’s SignalPro can help them identify which sites that consume the most energy, and then they know where to invest CAPEX for upgrades.

In conclusion, 5G is more energy efficient but this will take time to play out. Sustainability in the network must be viewed holistically. It is important that the RAN harvests data and turns these into actionable insights. To do this, operators need the right tools.

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