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Can Free Broadband Help Cut Energy Consumption?

fiberopticsHere’s an idea: Offer digital rewards — free broadband access, digital goods, or web services — for consumers and organizations that reduce their energy consumption. Everyone talks about disincentives like a carbon tax to help curb carbon emissions, but what about using broadband-based, carbon-free incentives as a way to encourage energy reduction, asks Bill St. Arnaud, the chief research officer of Canada’s Advanced Network development organization, or CANARIE, a nonprofit research group that is funded by the Canadian government.

St. Arnaud calls these incentives G-commerce (think e-commerce but green), and believes that G-commerce could be a new source of revenue for Internet companies and service providers as well as a valuable way to reduce carbon emissions. One way to do this, explains St. Arnaud, would be to offer free broadband bundled with electricity service. The customer would pay a slight premium for the package but could reduce the bill by cutting energy consumption and, thus, carbon emissions. The idea is interesting enough that there are some early trials of the business model — in Cleveland and Switzerland — and St. Arnaud says that CANARIE is helping with two larger pilot trials in Canada, one with the city of Toronto, that will be announced in the coming months.

Another way to use G-commerce could be created if Internet companies received credits for their digital products that reduce carbon emissions. The Internet can replace physical goods with virtual ones (like digital music, e-books and video conferencing), a process that is called “dematerialization.” St. Arnaud thinks that companies should try to get carbon credits for the dematerialization capabilities of their goods, using the channels and auditing processes that are currently available for carbon offset projects.

If businesses can receive carbon credits for goods and services that can be proven to reduce carbon emissions, the companies can pass those incentives back to the consumer. For example, say Amazon (s AMZN) can get carbon credits for selling its Kindle, then the online retailer could offer its customers more rewards for buying the gadget, like free e-books, or a reduced price on the Kindle. Carbon credits will be increasingly valuable and reliable if the U.S. ends up passing a cap and trade system — legislation that would implement cap and trade has currently passed the House and is being debated in the Senate.

When I asked St. Arnaud why he thought Internet companies aren’t already doing this, he said that the process of applying for and being audited for the credits can be daunting and complex, and many infotech companies just don’t know what steps to take. In addition, not all digital goods and services actually do reduce carbon emissions, so companies might not know what products could be applicable for the credits.

To be sure, St. Arnaud’s ideas about G-commerce are just that — early stage concepts that could very well fall flat in the field. St. Arnaud said a previous test of the free broadband model in Ottawa stalled because the telecom market wasn’t interested in participating. Markets that could be more interested in taking a chance on the experiment would be ones that have a competitive environment and have independent energy service providers, like Texas, that are looking at new business models to gain customers.

Then there’s the whole issue of the Internet consuming energy and being responsible for carbon emissions itself. Well, that’s the other leg of St. Arnaud’s work. He has been advocating the creation of a zero-carbon emission Internet infrastructure in Canada, where data centers are built near cheap renewable energy. He isn’t the only one — Google has been working on this strategy, as have startups like Texas-based Baryonyx.

While a lot of St. Arnaud’s ideas about G-Commerce probably won’t work in a lot of places in the U.S., I think his work is powerful just for the fact that it’s experimenting with new business models and thinking outside of the box of the power and information technology industries. The same old business as usual ideology won’t be what solves the climate change dilemma; we need new ideas and innovation.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Creative Commons.

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