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Efficiency Targets: Combination of solutions to optimise energy consumption

November 17, 2015
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The growth in smartphone penetration, telecom network expansion and the increasing use of mobile services is leading to higher energy consumption by telecom operators all around the world. Operators have started installing small cells in the vicinity of macro cell sites, especially in dense urban areas, to provide enhanced telecom capacity to deal with the growth in data traffic through offloading technologies. As a result, the energy consumption at telecom tower sites has been increasing significantly. This trend is expected to continue.

Operators are not only setting up more tower sites in urban areas to support the growing bandwidth requirements, but also doing so in rural areas and far-flung regions where voice networks are still lacking or non-existent. However, many of these areas, particularly in developing and less developed countries, do not have grid power supply, thereby compelling operators to opt for costly and less efficient solutions like diesel generator sets.

Considering that cost is one of the biggest determinants of competitiveness in today’s world, operators are devising strategies to optimise their energy expenses, which account for the majority of the operational expenditure at a tower site. They are increasingly looking at energy management and reduction strategies and solutions to lower energy consumption.

One energy management solution that is gaining traction is software that can be used to manage and optimise the energy consumption of telecom networks without reorganising their configuration. For instance, South Korea-based operator SK Telecom, in partnership with Ericsson, will be implementing Smart Wake-up, a new technology that is designed to wake up small cells when a mobile phone is detected in the cell boundary, and switch off in the absence of any mobile device. The operator believes that this will reduce the energy consumption of small cells and also reduce interference between active base transceiver stations (BTSs) and therefore increase data transmission rates. As per trials, the Smart Wake-up technology led to a 21 per cent reduction in BTS power consumption.

KT Corporation, another South Korean telecom company, has collaborated with Nokia Networks to optimise the energy consumption of its networks. Under a pilot project, Nokia implemented its self-configuring, self-optimising solution, iSON Manager, on the operator’s long term evolution network. This led to a 40 per cent reduction in energy consumption as sites were switched off when not in use.

Similarly, Spanish company Telefónica will use Smart Energy Solution (SES), a fully automated software developed by Israel-based eVolution Networks that enables the energy consumption of a BTS to be reduced by deactivating the capacity that lies unused during less traffic on the network. This enables the network to adapt to bandwidth demands, ensuring quality of service and also optimising energy use. SES is expected to reduce the energy consumption of Telefónica’s BTS by up to 35 per cent.

There have also been some developments on the wireline technology front. The GreenTouch consortium has developed new technology to drive the efficiency of wireline networks, with a focus on last mile fibre connectivity and cloud networks. It has introduced the cascaded bit interleaving passive optical network (CBI-PON) concept, which builds upon bit interleaving passive optical network technology. The new network architecture will be able to allow nodes to process only relevant data traffic. The data is sent in time slots rather than in packet form. The owner’s customer premises equipment will know the information destined for it, making it run at the user rate rather than the full rate. This will result in the network consuming less energy.

A growing number of telecom companies are also opting for clean energy solutions for managing the energy consumption of their networks. Among them, solar energy solutions are gaining the maximum traction on account of their high source availability and lower operational expenditure. In areas with no grid power supply, operators are installing distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) systems (ground mounted or rooftop) along with storage solutions to reduce the reliance on diesel gensets. For instance, IHS Holdings, which owns about 23,100 tower sites in the African region, intends to operate 80 per cent of its towers using hybrid solutions by the end of 2016.

Fuel cells are another clean energy solution being widely adopted in the telecom industry, particularly in areas where solar PV systems are not suitable. For instance, Vodafone’s South African subsidiary, Vodacom, has been using fuel cells since 2007, having installed 200 fuel cells so far across its tower sites. The company is of the view that these solutions are more suitable in urban areas due to the lower noise levels and the reduced probability of theft. Another operator, Pakistan-based Warid Telecom, has installed fuel cells at its tower sites to reduce diesel consumption. Under a trial project carried out with GSMA, Warid Telecom noticed the benefits of fuel cells over diesel gensets in terms of more reliability and lower carbon emissions (40 per cent lower than diesel gensets).

Meanwhile, developments are taking place in the domain of fuel cell technology where diesel is used as fuel. Swedish fuel cell maker PowerCell has collaborated with Mitochondria Energy to develop a power supply unit, PowerPac. The company claims that this is cost-effective power supply with no obnoxious emissions and less noise. Moreover, it requires minimal on-site maintenance and can be remotely monitored.

Operators have realised that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for meeting network power requirements and different solutions need to be adopted depending on several factors, including site location. Operators also reckon that many tower sites will require multiple energy solutions for their effective management and reliable operations. These would include combinations of grid power supply and clean energy solutions, or two clean energy solutions.

Given the growing focus on reducing costs, energy management is expected to become a priority for operators in the future, especially when it comes to redundant energy expenses. Although next-generation data networks are more efficient and consume less energy, the unprecedented level of data traffic growth will require the setting up of more infrastructure, particularly as operators have a limited quantum of spectrum. This will most likely have the net effect of increasing energy consumption for each operator. The addition of data offloading solutions like Wi-Fi networks, in-building solutions and small cells will further increase the total energy consumption of operator networks.

The additional complexity of different levels of data traffic at each BTS adds to operator woes, and this can only be addressed through proper network designing and optimisation. This will require operators to formulate and implement a comprehensive plan to build flexible networks and curb energy consumption over the next several years. In this regard, software defined networks and network function virtualisation will be critical components.

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