Everything’s gone green, said New Order in the 1987 single of the same name, and this week the telecoms industry is saying much the same thing. According to analysts at GlobalData, telco marketing will be dominated by espousing the green credentials of the of the industry.
And already Vodafone has stolen a march on its competitors, announcing that its network is set to be powered by 100% renewable sources from today (1 July 2021).
About time too. While consumers have embraced sustainability and have ‘gone green’, most industries have been slow to catch on. The telecoms – and the wider world of the internet for that matter – is a massive user of energy and these initiatives are to be applauded.
The internet – of which telecoms networks are a vital part – is a hungry beast. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), data networks consumed around 250TWh in 2019, or about 1% of global electricity use, with mobile networks accounting for two-thirds. Based on current efficiency improvement trends, electricity consumption is projected to rise to around 270TWh in 2022. That’s a lot of computers doing their thing.
To put that into some sort of perspective, Bitcoin alone uses more electricity than Argentina, according to analysis from Cambridge University.
The trouble is the internet is invisible to users. Unlike gas, electricity, water or any other utilities you can’t see it and don’t really experience its mechanics as that all happens miles – often thousands of miles – away on distant shores.
Part of the massive use of energy associated with digital tech lies in growing app usage. And this seems far from abating. According to App Annie it’s been another record-breaking quarter for global spend on mobile — increasing by $2bn since Q1 2021
Esports too is also on the rise, driven by a surge in use in China, with investments in China in Q1 2021 amounted to ¥1.42bn, passing the total amount of investments made in 2019 – ¥910m.
But consumers are starting to become aware of the way energy is being used. I guess they had a lot of time on their hands during lockdown and, bored, started to wonder how the internet works. And it works by drinking power.
It also guzzles materials – and has weight. Data is stored in trapped electrons in transistors and, while storing data doesn’t change the number of electrons present, those that are trapped – so those taking part in data storage – are at a higher energy level. Using Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, to covert energy to mass, the internet weighs about the same as a large plum. However, it is doubling in size every few years and so soon it will be a bunch of grapes, a hand of bananas… where will it end?
More worrying is that the material needed to store all this data is also finite. It is stored on materials and, at current growth rates, half of all atoms on Earth could be involved in data storage by the year 2245.
So, well done to Vodafone – and the wider telecoms industry – for addressing the power challenge. It is a great start, but only the start of a very long journey into a much larger problem of where do we put all that data and how do we keep the little green server lights on.