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10 Ways Phone Companies Are Going Green

Cell phone makers and cell phone service providers often like to tout their “green” accomplishments, like when Samsung and Sprint (s s) launched the bright green Reclaim phone, which is made from 80 percent recycled materials and partly made from bioplastic (yeah, that’s corn). I’ve never seen any of these live in the wild, nor heard anyone who ever wanted to actually buy one. But phone companies are also making some more serious moves when it comes to making networks more energy-efficient, or weaving in clean power. Here are 10 ways that phone companies are going green.

1). Energy efficient networking. Making networks and data centers that help transport data and voice to and from your cell phone energy-efficient is one of the most important ways that cell phone firms can reduce overall energy consumption. But according to the telecom researchers at Bell Labs, communication networks are highly inefficient, and “could be 10,000 times more energy-efficient.” That’s because today’s networks are optimized for capacity not energy.

Some phone companies are trying to change those statistics and telecom gear maker Alcatel-Lucent (s alu) (Bell Labs is the corporate research lab of Lucent) launched the “Green Touch” initiative to invent technologies that can drive more efficient networks. The initiative’s goal is to develop tech that can make networks 1,000 times more efficient within five years, and founding members include AT&T (s T), China Mobile, Telefonica, and Freescale among others.

2). The Smart Grid. While phone companies aren’t offering their networks for smart grid services specifically to be green, their networks will be able to help the power grid be more energy-efficient. Called machine-to-machine services, phone companies have increasingly been looking to add on automated services that don’t involve high maintenance cell phone accounts and customers, and can bring in extra revenue without a lot of upkeep. AT&T, Verizon (s vz), Sprint and T-Mobile are all getting into this act, and startups like SmartSynch have built businesses off bringing together the right smart meter gear with the phone firms.

3). Clean Power Base Stations. The majority of phone companies that are looking at solar and wind power to run — or back up — cellular base stations are in the developing world where the power grid doesn’t quite reach. In those regions, where it’s prohibitively expensive to build out the power grid, and diesel for backup generators is both costly and at risk for theft, phone companies are using clean power as a backup power source in 11 percent of the base stations. In the developed world, that percentage is much lower, but is still growing. According to Pike Research, 4.5 percent of the world’s cellular base stations will run off solar and wind by 2014, up from 0.11 percent in 2010.

4). Standardized Chargers. Ah, the lack of standardized chargers. Not only is this problem annoying to users, but it’s wasteful, because consumers end up buying different chargers for different cell phones. Hopefully, this problem is slowly resolving, thanks to a push from the computing industry and the micro-USB regulations that will set in by 2012.

5). Recycling Efforts. Recycling rates of cell phones is woefully low in most places: between 3 and 10 percent depending on what statistics you believe. Startups are actually some of the companies pushing the edge of this ecosystem, trying to find ways to make money from the materials and by refurbishing phones. Startups include RecycleBank, ecoATM, and Second Rotation.

6). Energy efficient data centers. In the same way that Internet companies from Google (s GOOG) to Yahoo (s yhoo) have been touting their latest energy-efficient data centers, phone companies should get in on this, too. Consumers are increasingly buying up always-on connected smart phones that are web-surfing capable, and thus the amount of servers and data centers needed to run cellular services will only continue to grow. In addition, phone companies should think about not only energy-efficient data centers, but also ways to add in clean power for data centers. Yeah, I know: baby steps.

7). Green-marketed cell phones. Seemingly one of the less successful attempts to go green, a few companies like Samsung and Sprint launched green-specific cell phones. I don’t have stats on these 8 green phones, but haven’t ever seen anyone use any of these organically.

8). Reducing hazardous chemicals: Greenpeace has been a real gadfly when it comes to getting gadget makers to reduce the hazardous materials in cell phones. But the environmentalist group actually gives European phone giants Sony Ericsson (s sne) (s eric) and Nokia (s nok) high marks, followed by pretty good grades for Motorola (s mot). Greenpeace put Nokia in the top Greener Gadgets ranking this year for its phasing out of brominated compounds, chlorinated flame retardants and antimony trioxide in all new models of products.

9). Solar Cell Phone Charging: This is another one — like green-marketed phones — I’m giving a big meh. While we’ve covered a few cases (for the iPhone 4) that give extra juice via solar, few of the phones themselves are incorporating solar technology. The reason? Solar tech is still waaay too expensive to hit some of the bare bones prices that many phones go for.

10). Mobile apps for sustainability. Some of the latest iPhone and Android apps are helping consumers curb their home energy consumption, and reduce the fuel consumption of their vehicles. While it’s the market for these things is still tiny, the majority of home energy management startups have an accompanying cell phone app, and new cars like Nissan’s all-electric LEAF are getting cell phone software to help drivers find the nearest EV charging stations.

For more research on cell phone companies and green, see GigaOM Pro (subscription required):

Images courtesy of Playa Grande Monkey Woman,

3 Responses to “10 Ways Phone Companies Are Going Green”

  1. These are all great ideas. I would like to see the solar charger idea pushed more. With the millions of cell phone users out there, I am willing to bet solar charging would have a nice impact on conservation.