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5G, 6G: what are the challenges for new telecommunication networks?

Will 5G improve or worsen our digital carbon footprint?

Serge Abiteboul, Researcher in Computer Science at Inria and ENS and Patrick Lagrange, Head of the Mobile Frequency Allocation Unit in the Mobile and Innovation Directorate of Arcep
On March 1st, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Patrick Lagrange
Patrick Lagrange
Head of the Mobile Frequency Allocation Unit in the Mobile and Innovation Directorate of Arcep
Serge Abiteboul
Serge Abiteboul
Researcher in Computer Science at Inria and ENS
Key takeaways
  • 5G is a new technological standard that allows, among other things, the use of radio frequencies with higher capacities to achieve higher data rates, while maintaining more simultaneous connections.
  • An analysis of the life cycle of a 5G installation leads to the consideration of three main phases in its impact on the environment: equipment manufacture, its use and, finally, its end-of-life management.
  • The use of 5G has an impact through its energy consumption. However, for a similar performance, 5G will consume less than 4G, but the increase in connected objects may still influence this observation.
  • Despite the positive effects of 5G, ambitions for greenhouse gas reduction are such that we still need to further reduce energy consumption of the telecommunications sector.

5G12 is a new tech­no­log­i­cal stan­dard that incor­po­rates 10 years of R&D in the field of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in terms of through­put, laten­cy, con­nec­tion den­si­ty, but also com­mu­ni­ca­tion secu­ri­ty and ener­gy effi­cien­cy (less ener­gy for a con­stant amount of data trans­port­ed). Improve­ments come from devel­op­ments in anten­nas and radio wave pro­cess­ing with new tech­nolo­gies such as mas­sive MIMO anten­nas3, which make it pos­si­ble to use radio fre­quen­cies with greater capac­i­ties in order to achieve high­er speeds, while main­tain­ing more simul­ta­ne­ous connections.

The con­ver­gence of tele­coms net­works with IT net­works is based on com­mon and stan­dard­ised soft­ware plat­forms, such as slic­ing and edge com­put­ing. Hence, 5G is a range of inno­va­tions for more reli­able and flex­i­ble uses. It brings impor­tant advances for numer­ous appli­ca­tions such as fac­to­ry or con­nect­ed cities, pub­lic or indi­vid­ual trans­port, logis­tics, etc.

Although the arrival of 5G was accom­pa­nied by con­cerns regard­ing health (expo­sure to waves) and ques­tions about secu­ri­ty and sov­er­eign­ty, here we will focus on the key issue. That of man­ag­ing to the ben­e­fits of 5G while con­trol­ling its envi­ron­men­tal impact. In oth­er words, merg­ing dig­i­tal con­nec­tiv­i­ty and sus­tain­abil­i­ty. This leads us to con­sid­er the envi­ron­men­tal effect of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in a more gen­er­al way.

What are the con­crete impacts of 5G on the envi­ron­ment? A life cycle analy­sis leads us to con­sid­er three main phas­es: the man­u­fac­ture of equip­ment (with an impact on the con­sump­tion of raw mate­ri­als such as water or rare resources and, to a cer­tain extent, a more or less car­bon-inten­sive ener­gy con­sump­tion gen­er­at­ing green­house gas­es), its use (main­ly con­sum­ing ener­gy) and, last­ly, the man­age­ment of its end-of-life (the pro­duc­tion of waste). For the sake of sim­plic­i­ty, we will focus here main­ly on ener­gy con­sump­tion, but we should bear in mind that this is only one facet of the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of this tech­nol­o­gy, and of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in general.


The energy consumption of 5G

While the actu­al deploy­ment of 5G may lead to ques­tions regard­ing the non-deploy­ment rhetor­i­cal, deploy­ment and non-deploy­ment stud­ies nev­er­the­less allow us to address key ques­tions. How will we con­tin­ue to devel­op this tech­nol­o­gy? And how will we adapt it? These ques­tions are par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant while we are still faced with real dis­rup­tions such as stand-alone, slic­ing or edge com­put­ing, and the con­di­tions for deploy­ment in the 26 GHz band are still being studied.

Where are the envi­ron­men­tal effects of con­cen­trat­ed 5G?

  • The deploy­ment of 5G leads to equip­ment changes. The pro­duc­tion costs of this equip­ment (espe­cial­ly those of pre­ma­ture ter­mi­nal replace­ment) may weigh heav­i­ly on the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of the technology.
  • On the oth­er hand, not deploy­ing 5G would have led to the den­si­fi­ca­tion of the 4G net­work, and there­fore also to the pro­duc­tion of more equip­ment, prob­a­bly in greater num­bers for the net­works, and above all to addi­tion­al oper­at­ing ener­gy costs, because, for a con­stant vol­ume of data, 5G is more efficient.
  • What com­pli­cates things is that the tran­si­tion to 5G could encour­age exces­sive use of data through a rebound effect that is dif­fi­cult to quantify.

Depend­ing on the assump­tions made, one gets rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent results.

The report by the French High Coun­cil for the Cli­mate4 con­sid­ers what the car­bon foot­print of the dig­i­tal sec­tor could be accord­ing to sev­er­al vari­ants of deploy­ment and non-deploy­ment of 5G. While there is con­sid­er­able uncer­tain­ty, the sce­nar­ios all con­clude that the deploy­ment of 5G will result in a sig­nif­i­cant increase in this foot­print, main­ly due to the increase in the num­ber of objects con­nect­ed to the network.

A study con­duct­ed by a com­mit­tee of experts involv­ing the main net­work equip­ment sup­pli­ers and the four met­ro­pol­i­tan mobile oper­a­tors, for which Arcep pro­vides the sec­re­tari­at, sheds more light on this issue5. It was not­ed that the deploy­ment of 5G allows mobile net­works to be much less intense in dense areas. How­ev­er, in low-den­si­ty areas, in the short and medi­um term, the oppo­site effect is like­ly to occur.

Better evaluation of digital energy consumption

It is dif­fi­cult to analyse the effects of 5G in iso­la­tion from the rest of the dig­i­tal ecosys­tem because each tech­nol­o­gy, whether mobile or wired, is used in an ever-increas­ing inter­weav­ing of IT and net­works. It is the entire ener­gy con­sump­tion of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy that must be chal­lenged. The dif­fi­cul­ty of estab­lish­ing cer­tain­ties in this area high­lights the great need for pre­cise assess­ments of ener­gy con­sump­tion. Such assess­ments are essen­tial to guide pub­lic poli­cies, but also the behav­iour of users and the choic­es of companies.

Arcep invest­ed in these sub­jects in 2020 by open­ing a plat­form “for a sus­tain­able dig­i­tal future” and by organ­is­ing a pub­lic debate as part of a process of exchange and con­sul­ta­tion with indus­try play­ers. The main tools for car­ry­ing out such assess­ments are life cycle analy­ses, which draw on all the sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge accu­mu­lat­ed in a field to define robust method­olo­gies, and the data col­lect­ed to feed the analyses.

With­in this frame­work, the author­i­ty has start­ed con­crete pro­grammes, includ­ing the following.

  1. A study is being con­duct­ed with ADEME to quan­ti­fy the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy today and in 2030 and 2050, with a first report to the gov­ern­ment expect­ed in 2022. The aim is to define a method­ol­o­gy and indi­ca­tors that will enable such quantification.
  2. Arcep has already been col­lect­ing envi­ron­men­tal data from elec­tron­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions oper­a­tors since 2020. But data from all the play­ers in the dig­i­tal world are need­ed: equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers, access providers, data cen­tre oper­a­tors, etc. It should also be not­ed that a law aimed at strength­en­ing envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion of the dig­i­tal sec­tor by Arcep, tabled by Sen­a­tor Patrick Chaize, which broad­ens Arcep’s data col­lec­tion pow­ers, has just been adopted.

Final­ly, the pos­i­tive effects of 5G must be con­sid­ered. Of course, some peo­ple insist on these “pos­i­tive exter­nal­i­ties” so as not to have to wor­ry too much about the neg­a­tive effects. But the ambi­tion of our green­house gas reduc­tion tar­gets is such that reduc­ing the ener­gy con­sump­tion of the tele­coms sec­tor is a neces­si­ty, how­ev­er impor­tant the pos­i­tive effects may be. It is up to the author­i­ties to set less ener­gy-intense objec­tives with­out hold­ing back inno­va­tion that could lead to envi­ron­men­tal gains in oth­er sec­tors that rely on dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy to achieve their eco­log­i­cal transition.

1Ref Arcep: Let’s talk 5G: all your ques­tions about 5G, https://​www​.arcep​.fr/​n​o​s​-​s​u​j​e​t​s​/​p​a​r​l​o​n​s​-​5​g​-​t​o​u​t​e​s​-​v​o​s​-​q​u​e​s​t​i​o​n​s​-​s​u​r​-​l​a​-​5​g​.html
2Report on 5G and mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions net­works, Académie des sci­ences, 2021
3Mas­sive MIMO (Mul­ti Input Mul­ti Out­put): is an anten­na itself made up of a large num­ber of small anten­na sub-assem­blies that make the best use of the spa­tial diver­si­ty of wave prop­a­ga­tion between the net­work and the ter­mi­nals
4High Coun­cil for the Cli­mate, « Con­trol­ling the car­bon impact of 5G », 20/12/2020


Serge Abiteboul

Serge Abiteboul

Researcher in Computer Science at Inria and ENS

A member of the College of Arcep (French regulatory authority for electronic communications, post and press distribution), Serge Abiteboul obtained his doctorate from the University of Southern California, and a state thesis from the University of Paris-Sud. He was a researcher in computer science at the Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et Automatique and Director of Research Emeritus in a research team at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. He has also been a lecturer at the École Polytechnique, a visiting professor at Stanford and Oxford Universities and an affiliated professor at the École Normale Supérieure de Cachan. His research work focuses on data, information and knowledge management, especially on the Web. Serge Abiteboul also writes novels, essays, and is editor and founder of the Blog binaire. He curated the Terra Data exhibition at the Cité des sciences in 2017-2018.

Patrick Lagrange

Patrick Lagrange

Head of the Mobile Frequency Allocation Unit in the Mobile and Innovation Directorate of Arcep

Patrick Lagrange recently contributed to the allocation of the 3.5 GHz band frequencies in France and participated in the implementation of Arcep's "Sustainable Digital" initiative. He graduated from Supélec and holds a Master's degree in economics and before joining Arcep, spent 25 years in the mobile infrastructure equipment supplier industry in R&D, standardisation, consulting, and pre-sales support roles.

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