Much room for technical development remains, despite the long history of electric communications.
Decades elapsed between the first version of the telegraph and the first phone call, in which the inventor of the telephone, Graham Bell, uttered the famous words, “Mister Watson, come here, I need you,” to his assistant Thomas Watson.
It now seems that 4G barely had time to settle in before 5G began hitting the streets. The development cycle of just under ten analogue and digital telephone systems has been completed in about the time that separated the telegraph from the first phone call. In the same period, the transmission of data has shifted continuously from cable-based, electromagnetic signals to wireless radio traffic.
Wireless communication is not ultimately wireless. Even pocket devices only work independently for a limited time; to be recharged, they need to be connected to the power grid for hours at a time, at regular intervals. So much for being wireless.
Base stations, which mobile devices connect to via radio signals, also depend on the power grid. While a base station can already communicate wirelessly, it cannot work without electricity cables. Given the need for base stations and other systems to control network components, electricity is becoming even more important.
Because of large energy needs
A range of evaluations have been performed of electricity consumption by, and carbon dioxide emissions from, telecommunications systems. Naturally, such assessments tend to link telecommunications to ICT systems as a whole. The carbon footprint of ICT devices remains under 5% of the total, but their share is growing continually. It is generally believed that power consumption will continue to double in cycles of around five years.
The electricity bill of European telecommunication network operators accounts for around 20% of their overall cost budget (OPEX). Finnish operators use over 0.5 TWh per year, which is equal to the annual production of Kemijoki’s largest hydropower plant and around 1.5 months of production by the type of nuclear reactor used in Loviisa.
You get what you order
The energy consumption of telecommunications has not yet been properly optimised. Resources have been allocated to achieve huge data transmission capacity; naturally, every effort has been made to succeed in this, which has required faster computing components, equipped with multi-core processors, in smaller and smaller casings. This has resulted in greater power consumption and greater, electricity-guzzling cooling needs due to problems with overheating. In addition, the move to higher frequencies requires a denser base-station network, increasing the number of electricity-consuming base stations.
What’s the solution?
Ten years ago, the construction industry had reached the point where a detached house, well constructed based on the technology of its time, was gorging on heating energy by current standards. It is now possible to build very low-energy buildings using conventional methods, due to improvements in building materials, regulations and, above all, greater public awareness of energy issues. With more investment in the issue, buildings can even produce energy. This means plus-energy construction.
The advent of plus-energy buildings has been made possible by a number of technical improvements and tools. These include the development of windows, qualitative and quantitative improvements in insulation, more-efficient heating technologies like the introduction of heat pump technology, and a range of new energy sources – such as solar and wind power – integrated into buildings.
But could the technical solutions used in telecommunications be developed to the point where ‘zero energy’ is achieved? The answer is, of course, yes. For example, the power consumption of devices could be reduced using electronics that consume less energy than now. Together with energy harvesting (solar, wind and vibrations etc.) and fuel cells, advanced battery technology is moving us into the age of telecommunications without power cables. The software used in devices has not been optimised at all. Additionally, rising cooling needs have led to the construction of better coolers instead of more efficient hardware and software.
Zero energy telecommunications should be viewed as a situation in which telecommunications devices function optimally in terms of energy consumption, and for long stretches without external energy sources. The term ‘energy autonomous device’ will become more and more familiar. Development is now happening on several fronts.
To quote very freely from J.F.Kennedy’s famous speech on the lunar missions: “We choose to study this not because it is easy, but because it is very hard. This is a challenge big enough for us to get our teeth into.”