5G energy efficiency: A sustainable connectivity solution

by Zoya Cochran, Principal Content Strategist, AT&T Business

Advancements in technology and network capabilities enable work to get done in a more efficient, smarter way. 5G telecommunications networks deliver significantly higher bandwidth compared to prior generations. This bandwidth supports more connected devices, allowing businesses to use data-rich technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT) to monitor data and help make more informed decisions. But there’s another benefit: 5G technology can have a net improvement on energy efficiency than prior network generations. Combined with business fiber internet, 5G is an enabler for energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable business.

Business 5G solutions and fiber internet are the core requirements for cloud connectivity. These technologies help IT teams bring data that was once processed through physical hardware and data centers to the edge of the network. Edge computing solutions reduce traffic on cloud servers by processing data closer to where it is generated rather than sending it to a central location. A key benefit to this shift is that it reduces delays in data processing and increases data security because there are fewer opportunities for a breach. This proximity to the source where the data is needed decreases latency, or lag time, of data processing. The result is the opportunity for faster, more efficient decision making.

By creating an environment where data is more easily accessed—and through technologies like IoT— more data is available. The result can be a net positive to improved efficiency. Less time to generate and evaluate data can mean less energy that’s required to operate a business and as a result, more energy efficiency can be achieved. The lower latency, broader bandwidth, and increased speed of 5G helps to make this possible.

Are 5G networks energy-efficient?

What does 5G energy efficiency look like then? This is seen through two aspects. First, there can be a net positive between enabling more connected devices and how 5G functions. Second, how 5G enables for cloud-based technologies that shift processing and data storage from hardware and data centers.

Improved network energy efficiency through 5G is driven by five main advancements1:

  • Sleep Mode: Because 5G networks process data faster and have increased bandwidth to support more traffic, power resources can be in sleep mode whenever traffic is light, saving energy.
  • Beamforming: Network transmitters focus the signal where devices are located instead of wasting energy by sending the signal to areas where it is not needed.
  • Massive Multiple-Input, Multiple Output (mMIMO): This 5G antenna technology allows more data to be transmitted using the same amount of energy.
  • Millimeter Wave Spectrum (mmWave): 5G can operate on a higher spectrum of wavelengths, called mmWave, that help boost a signal’s capacity for transmitting data with the same energy demand.
  • Virtualized Radio Access Networks: These systems allow for computing resources to be centralized and optimized, achieving economies of scale to reduce energy consumption.

Research shows enormous benefits from 5G energy efficiency. If 5G deployment matches realistic forecasts, it could equate to saving 21 gigatons (billion metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2030 worldwide2. With universal 5G coverage, that figure could increase to 37 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2030. And national estimates have shown that 5G will enable the U.S. to achieve approximately 20% of its target emission reductions by 2025, equal to 330.8 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent (CO2e) emissions3.

Addressing challenges to 5G energy efficiency

While 5G energy efficiency is better than that of 4G, it also enables for more connected devices. thus using more energy. In fact, a recent study estimated that the 5G system would see a 160% increase in power requirements by 20304.

To adjust for this increase in energy consumption, network providers must increase the use of renewable energy to power their systems, minimize waste and take steps to improve the energy performance of equipment and systems. AT&T has addressed this in the way we operate. We’re one of the largest corporate buyers of renewable energy in the U.S, and are committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions across its global operations by 2035.

Another challenge is estimates that 5G devices will each consume 20% more power than 4G devices5. It’s crucial that the 5G energy efficiency benefits not be outweighed by the increased power usage of its connected devices. High-speed internet connections powered by 5G networks enable a range of other technology tools and processes that can help businesses operate more sustainably. By pairing those connection speeds and technologies together, companies can more closely and accurately monitor their energy and resource use and identify ways to reduce them.

Can multi-access edge computing (MEC) help with energy efficiency?

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And when that distance is within your facility and not at a data center miles away, less energy is used to generate, store, process, and access that data when it’s needed.

As mentioned earlier, edge cloud services supplement 5G energy efficiency by helping to shorten that distance. Add to that,  on-premises edge solutions like MEC provide on-site data processing for increased speed and privacy in your business. Soon you’ll be able to take your edge solutions a step further. Private 5G edge is being developed to help companies that have multiple facilities achieve integrated connectivity through their edge computing solution. Yes, you’ll be able to have better security for your data, but it’ll also help you manage costs, and improve edge flexibility in one easy-to-use solution.

MEC helps contain data within the boundaries of a pre-designated footprint. Businesses that take advantage of IoT connected devices—which can span everything from laptops and desktops to smartphones, tablets, heating and cooling systems, vehicles and environmental sensors—can achieve lower latency by keeping some designated data and traffic local. In turn, this reduces traffic on centralized data centers, which can generate sustainable electronic waste and need a lot of energy and water to operate. For these reasons, we could see 75% of data created and processed outside a traditional center or cloud by 20256.

How are 5G and multi-access edge computing technologies energy-efficient?

5G provides increased network bandwidth to allow more devices to be connected to the internet. By using IoT services, businesses can remotely monitor these connected devices and equipment, analyzing data about condition and use. This information enables smarter, faster, more informed decision-making that can prevent equipment outages, reduce waste and identify energy conservation opportunities. Further, by accessing this information remotely, companies can reduce trips to work sites, saving on fuel and employee time.

MEC enables better network use optimization by allocating data transmission tasks to different servers, both on-site and remotely, in the cloud. This resource allocation can significantly reduce energy consumption by eliminating interference in data processing when too many tasks are attempted at once, and transmission is delayed. This delay increases energy consumption.

In tandem, 5G and MEC can help you reduce wasted energy and greenhouse gas emissions through:

  • Optimal equipment performance and lower latency, even on-site with competing devices and connections.
  • Prediction, identification, and mitigation of equipment quality issues that could lead to waste.
  • Video monitoring of analog equipment to identify any energy waste occurring.
  • Augmented reality to detect leaks that decrease efficiency.
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning that can respond to identified issues automatically.
  • Device management in near real-time, so they are only powered on when needed.

Improving the sustainability of the 5G network: Use Cases

Increased deployment of 5G networks and MEC can help organizations across industries take thoughtful steps to achieve both improved energy efficiency and the associated reduced costs and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

To illustrate the possibilities of 5G energy efficiency-related benefits, AT&T Business collaborated with the Texas A&M University RELLIS Campus in 2021 to open testbeds to develop 5G-powered applications and solutions for emissions-heavy industries. As made clear in the case studies outlined below, regardless of industry, 5G and MEC technology solutions can help things run more efficiently, use fewer resources, and work smarter.

Transportation: Research on autonomous vehicles and roadside safety is examining the use of smart intersection grids to leverage sensors that can help a vehicle better respond to its surroundings, improving safety and reducing vehicle idling. By connecting vehicles to other vehicles on the road, proactive adaptation can be achieved, where vehicles take corrective action before a problem occurs.

Understanding traffic patterns by analyzing this sensor data can also help traffic management systems such as stoplights be optimized to reduce cars standing still. This not only decreases the immediate emissions released but also improves gas mileage for cars at all points throughout their trip.

A recent study by Texas A&M University also highlights the sustainability benefits autonomous-capable battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have thanks to quicker decision-making, more efficient operations, and optimal energy expenditure. The study notes that autonomous BEVs result in reduced traffic, decreased emissions, added potential for safer roadways, and decreased commuting time for users. What’s more, BEVs running in autonomous mode in stop and start conditions reduced battery consumption by 1.3 – 1.9%.7

Manufacturing: 5G connectivity can help manufacturing facilities run more efficiently and reduce their power consumption and carbon footprint. In a recent study done by Purdue University, researchers studied the potential savings by leveraging AT&T mmWave 5G technology to transmit data from a pair of air compressor units at a heavy industry manufacturing facility, ultimately enabling advanced analytics and machine simulations.

The study estimated a potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 1,558.55 metric tons of CO2e every year per connected air compressor unit in industrial settings. When scaled across multiple facilities, the savings could be impressive. For example, if manufacturers deployed AT&T mmWave 5G technology on 1,000 air compressor units, they could avoid a cumulative 1.6 million metric tons of CO2e annually8.

5G networks have only been rolled out over the past few years. By continuing to expand 5G access, more and more companies and industries will be able to identify opportunities for greater energy efficiency and other sustainability-related use cases that we cannot yet imagine today.

Our approach to 5G-enabled sustainability solutions

AT&T Business is focused on its mission to provide reliable and secure 5G solutions that support businesses as they look to achieve efficiencies, save money, help reduce their GHG emissions and overall make more data-driven decisions. The AT&T 5G Innovation Studio, equipped with the latest wireless and wireline technologies, brings together organizations across AT&T and explores new enterprise and consumer use cases while accelerating the path to market of new product offerings and key strategic initiatives.

By further deploying 5G and integrating the increased bandwidth and network capacity with other technology solutions, such as edge computing and IoT, we can scale technologies and accelerate other businesses’ efforts to achieve their own sustainability goals. That is why AT&T has a goal to deliver connectivity solutions that enable business customers to reduce a gigaton of GHG emissions between 2018 and 2035.

So far, we have identified and calculated emissions reductions for 24 Smart Climate Solutions. Use of these solutions, which are powered by AT&T Fiber, 5G, IoT and other connectivity resources and are aimed at high-emitting industries, has enabled reductions of 149.2 million MT of CO2e as of the close of 2022. In support of powering our network more sustainably, we are also one of the largest purchasers of renewable energy in the U.S. 

To help increase the number and adoption of AT&T Smart Climate Solutions, we’re working together with other organizations through our Connected Climate Initiative, exploring new ways that our connectivity can help reduce GHG emissions. Through this initiative, we have integrated AT&T Internet of Things into the Salesforce Net Zero Cloud to make it easier for construction companies to track emissions related to re-equipment and other assets in the field. We worked with Microsoft to bring the Connected Spaces product to market. And we worked with GeoTab, a global leader in IoT and connected vehicles, to use telematics data to inform electric vehicle transition strategies, enabling companies to make more informed decisions about how to electrify their fleets.  

We’re still early in working toward our AT&T Gigaton Goal but are confident we will see progress accelerate as we identify new ideas and solutions and achieve more widespread uptake of existing ones, including 5G and edge computing. We believe we can enable a cleaner future.

Why AT&T Business?

See how ultra-fast, reliable fiber and 5G connectivity protected by built-in security give you a new level of confidence in the possibilities of your network. Let our experts work with you to solve your challenges and accelerate outcomes. Your business deserves the AT&T Business difference—a new standard for networking

Learn more about AT&T Business Smart Climate Solutions products and solutions can help you reach your sustainability goals. Contact your AT&T Business representative to connect with an expert who knows business.  

Accenture. “5G Connectivity: a key enabling technology to meet America’s climate change goals.” 2022. https://api.ctia.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/5G-Connectivity-A-Key-Enabling-Technology-to-meet-Americas-Climate-Change-Goals-2022-01-24.pdf

Interdigital. “5G Sustainability.” November 2021. https://www.interdigital.com/white_papers/5g-sustainability?submit_success=true

Accenture. “5G Connectivity: a key enabling technology to meet America’s climate change goals.” 2022. https://api.ctia.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/5G-Connectivity-A-Key-Enabling-Technology-to-meet-Americas-Climate-Change-Goals-2022-01-24.pdf

Interdigital. “5G Sustainability.” November 2021. https://www.interdigital.com/white_papers/5g-sustainability?submit_success=true

European Scientific Journal. “5G Energy Efficiency Overview.” January 2021. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349136327_5G_Energy_Efficiency_Overview

Data Center Dynamics. “How micro data centers make Edge computing possible.” June 2022. October https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/opinions/how-micro-data-centers-make-edge-computing-possible/

Dr. Srikanth Saripalli, “Safe and Efficient Autonomous Vehicles using 5G,” Texas A&M University Unmanned Systems Lab, 2023.

Equivalency calculated using EPA GHG Calculator  https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator.