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Intelligence Brief: In focus, green transformation and network sunsets

In recent years, the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) agenda has made its way to the top of the list of priorities for most organisations.

Unsurprisingly, the question of how organisations can support efforts to tackle climate change sits at the centre of many of these ESG discussions and has driven the mobile industry to be one of the first to align itself with the goals of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Green transformation
Did you know?
In February 2019, the GSMA board, on behalf of the entire industry, set an ambition for the mobile industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 [1] at the latest. This ambition has been supported by the launch of science-based pathway and milestone targets, with step-by-step guidance for operators to align their carbon reduction targets to the pathway.

This spurred a clear commitment from the industry: as of April, operators representing 65 per cent of the mobile market (by revenues) had committed to science-based targets for carbon reductions and net zero emissions. This is also echoed in our operator survey results [2], where more than 50 per cent of operators surveyed identified sustainability/energy efficiency as extremely important and one of the top network transformation priorities.

Some operators have even set ambitious timelines to achieve net zero emissions as early as 2025 or 2030.

Against this backdrop, operators are identifying and adopting numerous energy efficiency measures such as use of renewable energy sources, infrastructure-level improvements like new lithium-ion batteries, AI-enabled sleep and wake patterns of BTS to save energy, power efficient equipment, and modernising networks through retiring old and legacy networks.

These measures are paving the way for operators to achieve their energy efficiency targets in the net zero journey and they are a reason why green telecom remains in the news on a daily basis.

So what?
An increasing number of operators are committing to reduced carbon emissions, making progress on their goals and experimenting in the name of further efficiencies. This not only helps to combat climate change, but also has positive opex implications for operators.

For a telecom operator, maximum energy consumption happens at the network level, mainly the RAN (ranging from 70 per cent to 90 per cent of total energy consumption), which translates into a bigger slice of network costs allocated towards energy expenses (can be as high as 90 per cent). The energy efficiency measures implemented by operators can therefore drive significant cost savings.

But what else does the industry need to do to achieve these targets?

Operators work with multitude of partners (infrastructure vendors, third-party data centres and outsourced business operations) to deliver their products and services. It is therefore imperative for all the partners involved to work together, and not in silos, to align and achieve the industry-wide targets of net zero emissions. An overarching framework should bring all of the partners together and align their goals and targets.

At the same time, a list of universally agreed KPIs, along with their definition and reporting criteria is important to measure progress and allow an apple to apple comparison for players.

The absence of properly-defined KPIs reporting criteria married with erroneous data availability of energy consumed at every point in the network makes things difficult and complex.

Done right, this will be a win-win for both the global economy and telecom industry.

Related Reading:
Going Green: benchmarking the energy efficiency of mobile [3]
Energy efficiency in the 5G era: going lean, going green [4]

The year of network sunsets
Did you know?
Network sunsets are also one of the measures used by operators in their energy efficiency initiatives, but also with wide-ranging impacts on device sourcing, roaming agreements, VoLTE rollout and more.

The advent of LTE networks also marked the dawn of network sunsets. Starting around 2009/2010 with operators shutting down CDMA networks, the rationale was expansion of 3G networks or support for newer 4G networks. But, it was only around 2015/2016 when operators truly started warming to the concept of network sunsets to support their LTE launch or expansion plans.

Now, as 5G goes global, 2021 is the year when we will see the concept gaining full momentum. Compared with 43 networks shutdowns in the last six years, closure of 35 networks will be completed or planned in 2021 alone. In the five year period from 2021-2025, a total of 69 networks from 61 operators are expected to be shut (see chart, below, click to enlarge).


So what spurred the growth in network sunsets and what is the one key thing operators need to do right to make a network sunset a success?

The decommissioning of legacy networks offers a number of benefits to operators:

The spectrum can be refarmed (regulations permitting) for the launch and expansion of new technologies.
It contributes to the energy efficiency goals of operators: the standards and infrastructure requirements for newer technologies allow for less energy consumption per bit of data, like with the NR standard of 5G.
Legacy networks usually operate in low- and mid-frequency bands while more than 50 per cent of 5G launches have been in the 3.5GHz to 3.7GHz bands, making legacy bands ideal to enhance the coverage and capacity of 4G and 5G networks.
Where ageing 2G/3G networks eat up a significant portion of an operator’s opex, the new infrastructure innovations in 4G and 5G, such as open RAN, RIC and cloud-based networks are touted to drive significant opex, thereby presenting a good reason to sunset legacy networks.

These benefits conflated with the fact operators in numerous countries still do not have access to 5G-specific spectrum, makes the case for retiring legacy networks to support newer launches and expansions.

Sounds like a perfect scenario, right?

But, what often gets concealed behind these benefits is the challenges involved in the process. Phasing out a network generation completely is a complex process and usually takes years to complete. Transitioning of retail customers, for example, is still manageable by offering handset subsidies and continuation of existing tariffs, but transitioning enterprise or IoT customers can be a lengthy and difficult process given the reliance on low cost 2G devices and networks.

To ensure no hiccups for customers it is imperative an operator undertakes a detailed risk assessment and fully plans for all implications, including new device demands, VoLTE support and so on. The entire transition process needs to be planned carefully while ensuring timely communication with affected customers and the provision of advice and customer support to ensure the smooth transition.

Related Reading
Spectrum Navigator, Q2 2021: new insights and trends to watch [6]
Slow pace of 5G assignments is spurring spectrum refarming [7]
Intelligence Brief: What does 2021 hold for network sunsets? [8]

All the above analysis is based on news curated by GSMA Intelligence’s team of analysts and taken from their Industry Updates feed, available here [9].

– Radhika Gupta – head of data acquisition, GSMA Intelligence

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.


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