GreenTouch details roadmap for wiping out 90% of telecom’s energy demands

For the last 100 years, the communications industry has been focused on one goal: cramming more and more information into the same-sized pipes, whether those pipes are made of copper, optical fiber, or coaxial cable or hanging in the wireless ether. A consortium called GreenTouch, however, is betting that if the same scientific effort expended chasing each incremental increase in data efficiency could be redirected toward energy efficiency, we could nearly wipe the power footprint of our communications networks clean.

Alcatel-Lucent(s alu) launched GreenTouch in 2010 with the stated goal of making wireless and wireline networks 1,000 times more energy efficient than they are today in the long term. Three years later the consortium — which has grown to include 53 vendors, carriers and research institutions — is releasing its first set of recommendations to green up the telecom industry.

GreenTouch logoThe recommendations are a long list of technologies and network topologies, some of which would require mere software tweaks to current equipment while others would require new telecommunications standards and a new generation of network equipment, said Thierry Klein, GreenTouch’s technical committee chair and head of Bell Labs green research.

New small cell topologies could drastically reduce the power necessary to run mobile data networks since smaller the cell radiuses require less power necessary to maintain a connection, Klein said. Those networks would have to be managed much differently than cellular systems are today, however, with cells automatically shutting off and turning on to meet the real-time capacity demands of subscribers.

“We’re talking about adjusting the resources of the networks on the microscopic level,” Klein said. “We can create a power profile for the equipment that’s much more proportional to its use.” Basically, carriers have to commit to running only as much network as need at any given moment.

GreenTouch is also recommending infrastructure sharing, which would require operators to virtualize their own networks a common set of base stations, towers antennas and core routers. On the wireline side, GreenTouch has developed a new technique for delivering fiber connections to homes called bit-interleaved passive optical networking (BIPON), which reduces the energy required to deliver high-speed broadband by a factor of 30.

thierry_van_landegem_photo GreenTouch
Thierry Van Landegem

GreenTouch said if fully implemented, the recommendations would meet its 1,000x improvement goal on wireless network, but would only get about halfway to the same milestone on wireline networks. But GreenTouch Chairman Thierry Van Landegem claimed that taken together these recommendations could reduce the operational energy consumption of all of today’s communications networks by a staggering 90 percent by 2020.

In an interview I pressed Van Landegem on that number, but he insisted he wasn’t talking about a 90 percent efficiency improvement but actually cutting the energy consumed by all the world’s communications networks to one tenth of 2010’s levels. That’s even accounting for the facts that many more networks will be built, billions more people will have access to those networks, and average mobile and wireline data consumption will skyrocket in 2020, Van Landegem said.

If GreenTouch can live up to that promise — and if the mobile industry follows its recommendations — such an energy reduction truly would be an impressive feat. And Van Landegem said GreenTouch is just getting started: “Reducing energy by 90 percent is conservative as we have many projects underway whose effects were not taken into account in that number.”