Going Green: Telecom Industry Vows To Reengineer World’s Communications Networks

Networks that underpin Internet and mobile communications  emit 300 million tons of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere per year, an amount equivalent to the pollution of 50 million autos. But Alcatel-Lucent‘s Bell Labs and partners such as China Mobile, Telefonica and AT&T, have formed  a new consortium called Green Touch that vows to develop networking equipment that can cut energy consumption by a factor of 1,000, reducing emissions in the process.

If it works the same amount of energy gulped by global networks in one day could power them for three years.

“This is a game changer and we think it is doable,” Alcatel-Lucent chief executive Ben Verwaayen said during a January 11 London press conference.   He predicted that within five years Green Touch’s work will enable new networking equipment to be commercialized that will gulp 1000 times less energy at an affordable price. The new equipment will be backwards compatible with existing equipment, he said.

If that sounds ambitious consider this: researchers at Bell Labs, which is taking the lead on the consortium, think that current networks are using 10,000 times more energy then is necessary. That is because today’s networks are optimized for performance with little thought to energy consumption.

In addition to Bell Labs the  15 founding partners in the Green Touch consortium include telecom operators  China Mobile, Telefonica, AT&T, Swisscom and Portugal Telecom; Freescale Semiconductor;Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, Samsung Group’s central R &D organization; Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab;Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Research Laboratory for Electronics; France’s CEA-LETI, a global research center; the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA); the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society; and imec, a global research center specializing in nano-electronics.

“The excitement is this : if you are willing to embrace open collaboration with the best brains in the world and let them work on an issue that seems insurmountable spectacular things can happen,” said Verwaayen.

The explosion of Internet and mobile traffic mean that  if nothing is done over the next decade the amount of Co2 released into the atmosphere from communications networks will rise significantly, said Gee Rittenhouse, vice-president of research at Bell Labs. ” If we take everything we know and apply it  we can not compensate for this speculator growth,” he says. “At the very best we can hold it constant. “\

That got researchers at Bell Labs thinking about how to make improvements. Last summer a handful of researchers got together to  think hard about energy use inside of  networks and figure out what is the minimum amount of energy today’s networks need to function.  Two dozen scientists and engineers studied the problem and in the early autumn  presented the results:  the energy needed to power networks is theoretically 10,000 times less than is being used today.

 Given that, researchers figure a goal of a 1,000 fold efficency gain is obtainable within five years. But such a goal would require a clean slate approach  to the design of communication networks, Rittenhouse said.

Some of the biggest savings might come from a different approach to mobile networks.  Telecom gear makers already make mobile base stations powered by alternative energy but these represent only a tiny fraction of the base stations on the market. Lots of energy is also lost in the handling of calls.

For an explanation of how scientists might optimize capacity while reducing energy consumption watch this video from Bell-Labs’ Rittenhouse. 

While the Green Touch consortium includes academic and industrial research labs, mobile operators and a chipmaker, Alcatel-Lucent is the only network equipment maker among the founding members. The group made it clear that other companies are welcome to join the effort.

Analysts say they are not sure competitors will join this consortium. They could prefer to form their own. The good news is that the industry is partnering on green solutions, says Mike Canfield, a London-based analyst at Forrester Research specializing in telecommunications strategy. 

“What is really exciting is this is the first time ever organizations from around the world are working in a coordinated and disciplined way” on this type of  issue,” said Rod Tucker, director of the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society(IBES), a research institute at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a member of the Green Touch consortium.






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