Image source: shaunl via Getty

Published: August 10th, 2020

Next-generation 5G networks are not only set to enable faster speeds but also lower energy consumption, a key point linked to any operation. The Next Generation Mobile Network (NGMN) alliance, an alliance between leading telecommunication groups, offers a few pointers on how 5G efficiency could be improved in its second 5G White Paper.

NGMN says that 5G should support 1,000 times greater traffic within the next 10 years while reducing the energy consumption of the whole network by half without sacrificing performance. In a separate report, Western Digital predicts that with all the energy-saving features combined, 5G could use 90 per cent less energy per bit than 4G. The efficiency improvement benefits the entire stack; it not only reduces operating costs for carriers but can also prolong cellphone battery life.

But 5G’s inherent design poses new challenges to this ambition. Higher frequency radio waves require more microcell towers to be placed closer together. And although they use far less power than a conventional macro cell tower, much more of them are needed. Depending on the geography and building layout, the NGMN report says the number of towers required differs from city to city.

Fortunately, there are already solutions to this issue. One feature of the 5G New Radio (NR) standard is sleep mode. In a 4G base station, much of its hardware remains powered on even when there’s no data being transmitted. Sleep mode can turn off redundant hardware to save power in idle mode. According to Ericsson, power consumption scales better as more nodes are added in a super-dense urban scenario due to advanced load balancing techniques.

A pure NR 5G micro deployment greatly lowers power consumption compared to an LTE micro deployment. Power consumption scales better with a higher number of cells as well, as advanced load balancing distributes traffic evenly across the cell sites, allowing individual cell sites to enter into their sleep state for longer. Image source: Ericsson.

But operators need to do more than just rely on the energy-saving features baked into their gear. Autonomic management and control capabilities, the NGMN report says, assisted by artificial intelligence and machine learning needs to be applied at a management and control level. The network would eventually need to be capable of self-diagnosis, configuration, and optimizing. Ultimately, the AI and ML can help operators better plan and their networks to optimize energy efficiency and reduce carbon footprint.

In addition, the management functionalities need to be built on open APIs to allow for partners to exchange management information. To achieve this goal, operators must consider pulling solutions from the open-source community.

As with any data sharing, the new form of management naturally calls for a transparent policy that clearly communicated to the users, especially when it concerns sharing information between businesses through open APIs. The information and data formats should be changed in a common or standardized way, where all parties involved in the data exchange would comply with equal levels of governance.

Another strategy is tapping into renewable energy. With that said, energy storage continues to pose a problem. While renewables reduce carbon footprint, the sporadic availability of certain types of energy sources often requires a form of power storage to maintain uniform availability. Energy free devices like sensors and trackers that make use of ambient energy can help mitigate this issue.

A robust 5G network requires more investments in infrastructure, especially in urban centres that have tall buildings that block high-frequency radio waves. Manufacturers of infrastructure and end-user devices need to consider the environmental and ethical impacts of the materials sourced. For example, Cobalt, a heavy metal used in batteries, needs to be sourced from mines with established working standards. NGMN says manufacturers should also seek alternatives to raw materials that are damaging to the environment, as well as invest in recycling and upcycling initiatives.

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