There is a familiarity and comfort in our almost-everywhere connection to always-on communications networks and to the ever-increasing array of services they deliver us. We don’t just consume these network services directly, they give us what economists call “options” – options to connect, options to seek out new services, options to find new information. Clearly we don’t use this network services 24/7, but we value highly the options for instantaneous and simultaneous access at any time.
Cloud-based applications – those stored and managed by massive data centres run by the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook or Apple – are providing step changes in the financial and environmental efficiency of delivering these services. But the centralising power of the cloud has its corollary in the dispersing effect of wireless networks and devices.
In wireless networks and devices we see fragmentation, duplication and a fundamental shift from mains power and green sources of energy to battery powered always-on devices. In environmental terms here lies the rub. Rather than the “aggregation of marginal gains” (the Sir Dave Brailsford strategy that has propelled success in British cycling), in which lots of tiny improvements add up to a large visible improvement, we are witnessing the aggregation of environmental disadvantages from billions of low-powered but fundamentally energy-inefficient antennas and devices providing the ‘last metre’ connectivity to global networks.
Wireless networks and devices, technologies that should drive sustainable development, are turning into energy-consuming monsters.
The challenges posed by the transformation of the sector are addressed in The Power of Wireless Cloud (PDF), a paper from The Centre for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) in Melbourne. The paper calculates that the CO2 burden of building and maintaining mobile networks has been overlooked in wireless cloud calculations, especially the antennas and wireless routers that provide connections to smartphones and tablets. CEET estimates that from 2012 to 2015 wireless cloud computing will add 24 megatonnes of carbon, taking the sector’s total emissions up to 30 megatonnes, the equivalent of putting around 4.9m new cars on the road.
The usual assessment of the sustainability benefits and costs of wirelesscloud computing considers the actual consumption of applications and technologies and compares these with existing ways of performing those activities. Vodafone and Accenture analysed this in their joint reportCarbon Connections, which claimed that 13 opportunity areas, such as mobile health, could reduce carbon emissions by 113 megatonnes per year.
What CEET has done is to put a quantification on the carbon required to gain 24/7 access to the wireless cloud, whether or not it is actually used. But more importantly the report focuses attention on the poverty of offsets as a solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that we should ultimately be seeking net downward changes in carbon footprints. If we are to deliver these we will have to review our love of always-on capability and our substitution of renewable energy-efficient centralised power supply by dispersed and relatively inefficient battery power.
In the wireless cloud we have the complete opposite of the Brailsford cycling strategy. It is the visible datacentres, like the gold medals, that we tend to count when we consider the sustainability implications. The personalised devices and ubiquitous antennas are so common, so fragmented and so marginal that we lose sight of them, but they are born to run and rarely switched off.
This fragmentation and its carbon cost consequences are what the CEET report has highlighted. Despite the massive growth in use of smartphones and tablets, the reality is that they – and the antennas connecting them to the networks – still spend an awful lot of time on standby and costing carbon, rather than in active use and saving carbon.
Very few people doubt the benefits to society and economies that wireless cloud computing can bring, but the CEET report shows that sustaining always-on global mobile connectivity in the way we do now is highly unsustainable.