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For 5G and beyond, energy is as important as RAN, core and transport

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Hardware, software, and site energy solutions can collectively make 5G more sustainable

For communications service providers, the trend lines around demand for mobile and fixed wireless data are clear. The trajectory of adoption for the Internet of Things is equally clear. Layer in the distributed compute and storage capabilities necessary for 5G to be fully realized (and monetized) and again, the industry has a good look at what’s coming. And while these strategic technology discussions are happening in earnest on convention stages and inside boardrooms, there’s another key piece to a holistic network strategy—energy production and consumption. 

There’s a direct link here between network energy consumption needs and corporate sustainability and carbon neutrality goals. However, there is a disconnect between purchasing carbon offsets and making long-term decisions around energy-smart operations and diversification of power sources through investment in renewables. By testing today and planning for tomorrow, operators can achieve business and sustainability goals through a tighter integration of energy and network infrastructure and potentially, and eventually, drive a paradigm shift wherein energy serves as a leverageable network domain sitting right alongside core, RAN and transport. 

Before digging into how to accomplish that, first consider when to initiate this type of holistic approach that includes energy generation and network infrastructure. The most efficient way at it would be in tandem with a network overhaul, whether that’s deployment of new 5G spectrum or macro-level infrastructure upgrades—time spent on-site is expensive so make the most of it. That said, a concurrent energy/network upgrade is a complex proposition, but an important one. 

“Do as much as you can while on site,” Patrik Jansson, director of mobile network site solutions for Ericsson North America, explained in an interview with RCR Wireless News. “That’s the absolute right strategy. If you take the power segment into account, we’re not talking about small boxes you just click in. This is big infrastructure and heavy equipment and the power plant is the most important component at every site. Without a robust power system, it doesn’t matter how good the radios and processors are.” 

With the timing established, Jansson talked through the steps CSPs can take today in service of interdependent network and energy production/consumption goals. First, new equipment. Ericsson’s latest radios, basebands and other network components use the Ericsson Silicon that lowers the energy consumption in the range of 30 percent compared to industry benchmark. With modern RAN hardware in place, the second step is layering on smart software that effectively puts different network components to sleep when they’re not needed. An operator’s understanding of its total network power performance (including each and every site), coupled with artificial intelligence, can dynamically enable reductions in energy consumption and, following from that, operational expense. To understand what that looks like in practice, read how Ericsson and Vodafone U.K. halved energy consumption in a 5G trial. 

The third step, after hardware and software upgrades, is a focus on site energy elements, including the power plant and batteries. Power rectifiers that convert AC to DC power, for instance, are getting more efficient. Jansson said Ericsson has started to use power rectifiers that operate at 98% efficiency, meaning only 2% of power coming to the site dissipates as heat; this itself fits into the site design, dimensioning, and engineering as less heat generated means climate control equipment can run more efficiently. “Tailor your equipment configuration to be most energy efficient,” he said. 

The next step is arguably the most important as it has the potential to propel CSPs into a new era of network design, construction and operation, but it challenges decades-old methodologies. Instead of diesel generators and lead-acid batteries, operators need to be thinking about site-specific renewable energy sources like solar panels connected up to lithium-ion batteries. Another important consideration is the resiliency of vital network infrastructure as the impacts of climate change become increasingly apparent and increasingly threatening to infrastructure-dependent services. 

Recall the trends around data demand, IoT, and distributed computing mentioned earlier in this article. If you believe in the continuing growth of a smart, connected society, there must be a concurrent growth in energy production. In the context of more tightly integrating energy production with mobile networks, there are larger, complementary interdependencies to be realized if you consider scaling from one site to many. This also aligns with the evolution of the utilities sector in terms of the need for added resiliency, sourcing sovereignty, renewable microgrids offsetting peak demand load, and other factors. 

“This is something we continue to invest in,” Jansson said. “The Ericsson Smart Connected Site ties the radios and processors tightly together with the power, energy, and climate systems and you can monitor all of it remotely. This awareness makes it possible for the operator to make decisions to help lower the network power consumption while increasing the network robustness.”

Learn more from Ericsson here.

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