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5G Core Summit – Sustainable Evolution?

The recent 5G Core Summit in Madrid saw leading operators commit to a 5G future. We heard much about ambitious plans for 5G investments, although there remains considerable uncertainty. Partly that’s related to standardisation – some major gaps remain and there are questions about a number of fundamental issues, such as a dedicated 5G voice service (some CTOs are convinced this is necessary, while others reject the idea – we think it’s probably inevitable, for a variety of reasons, on which more in future posts), and the need to create a means of coordinating and accessing resources from across the ecosystem for network slices, for example.

However, while there is clear progress towards the 5G Standalone Architecture (expected next year – with preliminary implementations already available), there are significant concerns about cost. As is well-known, 5G requires massive densification and, while many operators talked about existing 5G investments, these are far from the sort of coverage that will ultimately be required. There’s a long way to go before 5G access becomes universal. So, a common theme was cost-reduction and containment. Automation is seen as critical to achieving this.

But quite apart from financial costs, we also heard much discussion regarding externalities, specifically the environmental cost of this massively increased network footprint and processing infrastructure. The density of base stations required and the investment in data centres to support cloud and edge processing drive growing demands for power, which has both a direct cost and an indirect cost through extending the carbon footprint of operators. Several speakers explicitly referred to this and there is now a recognition that the industry has to take steps to minimise this negative impact.

This was timely, as the event coincided with growing signs of activism in New York and elsewhere. While directed mainly at the petrochemical industry, it’s clear that protesters will seek to target any producer that does not address carbon consumption. It won’t be long before the communications industry is in their sights.

As such, we can expect this to be a growing theme. Operators will have to seek ways to minimise power consumption and reduce their carbon footprint and several speakers reported how their investments in new, virtual technology and automation are helping them to achieve this. A1 Belarus, for example, reported that its virtualisation project had led to a 15% reduction in power consumption. Others included these goals in their presentations. Vendors are beginning to address this concern, both in their messaging and in the results they report.

This is an interesting shift and one that’s likely to become mandatory very soon. We’ve also heard separately about ethical concerns regarding the adoption of technologies such as AI, for example, while the digital divide is also becoming a problem in many countries because 5G coverage is likely to be patchy at best for some years to come. So, while the industry is gearing up for the next phase of 5G growth, it’s encouraging to note that the problems such investments may cause are becoming not just recognised, but also widely discussed in the forum of a primarily technical event.

For many years, the focus has been on technology and business cases. Our industry must adapt to these changes, but it also needs to reflect changes that are sweeping through society. It’s impossible to ignore green concerns, given the scale of investments that MNOs are expected to make. Evolution towards full 5G has to be managed sustainably, with minimal additional environmental impact. The question is, will such concerns continue to occupy the industry, and will they translate into real action, not vague pledges or aspirations?