Upgrading cell towers could save enough energy to power entire cities

According to a new study from US research firm J. Gold Associates, an upgrade to more efficient cellular radio towers could save enough electricity to power cities like Phoenix, New Orleans or Seattle.

American cell sites consume a total of nearly 21 million megawatt hours (MWh) of power annually. That is the equivalent of the average power consumption of nearly two million households.

“Mobile services have become an essential part of the infrastructure of modern life. It’s hard to imagine not being able to communicate with our mobile devices on the go, or increasingly through a wireless home gateway that enables internet services for both residential and business customers,” the report said. “But not often discussed is the burden that the numerous cell sites place on the electricity supply needed to power them and the costs associated with the power supplied.”

Each 10% reduction in the total power of the cell results in a saving of enough electricity to power the equivalent of 195,000 households. And a 40% reduction will provide enough electricity to power the equivalent of nearly 782,000 households, according to the study, “US Cell Sites—a Sustainability Analysis.”

By upgrading both the radio hardware and management software, each cell site could save up to 40% of its electricity needs, the report says.

graphs for energy consumption and costs of cell towers J. Gold Associates

“Sustainable reuse of the electricity can be used to power a large number of equivalent households without the need for new energy sources,” the report said. “The amount and cost of electricity to run our modern cellular infrastructure is enormous and has an effect on users’ subscription costs, as well as the load on the power grid and the creation of greenhouse gases from electricity generation.

“It would be beneficial for the industry to move in this direction as soon as possible,” the study concludes.

A typical modern, high-performance mobile site would likely cost about $200,000, according to Jack Gold, lead analyst and author of the report. Each carrier would be responsible for their own equipment, even if they share a physical tower with others. Typically, the tower is owned by a tower company, which then leases the site to the various operators (similar to a multi-unit rental such as a condominium or apartment building).

“So each carrier is responsible for their own upgrade of their equipment,” Gold said in an interview.

ericsson 5g antenna photo Ericsson

Telco employees install a 5G antenna on a cell tower.

According to the Cellular Telecommunications Internet Association (CTIA), there were 417,215 cellular sites in the US at the end of 2020. While that number is a moving target as more mobile sites are added as new areas and/or services are deployed, J. Gold Associates used that number for the report’s calculations. (The CTIA is a trade association representing the U.S. wireless communications industry.)

The radio element of a cellular telecommunications network is called a RAN (which is short for radio access network). The typical RAN lasts about eight years before requiring upgrades or replacements, Gold said.

(Because there is a wide variation in the age of mobile sites worldwide, it is difficult to estimate how many currently need replacing, according to a spokesperson for the Swedish network and telecommunications company Ericsson.)

Rather than simply replacing old hardware, moving to a more virtualized environment instead of dedicated hardware will help lower the overall need for power, Gold said.

AI offers opportunities

In addition, by leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) in cell site management software, service providers can more proactively operate infrastructure with tools to control passive equipment and enable predictive maintenance and touch-less troubleshooting to reduce costs, site energy usage, and site visits. .

mobile tower savings image J. Gold Associates

“AI tools are helpful in managing the hardware of the mobile sites, by better understanding how much power is needed for each connection, rather than just turning radios on and off at full power, which is basically what happens on the older ones. equipment,” Gold said. . “If you’re close to the tower, you don’t have to give me a full-power signal.”

AI can also spot past patterns and manage equipment on that basis (the software could “learn” that a site rarely has traffic from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. and puts it on minimum power). That kind of granular management can significantly reduce power. And better antennas, such as more efficient 5G Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) devices, can also help limit the amount of broadcast power needed.

single antenna footprint solution for massive mimo tdd and multi band fdd Ericsson

A 5G antenna on top of a roof.

Ericsson recently announced a more energy-efficient RAN powered by the company’s latest-generation silicon, which it claims uses 25% less power. The portfolio update includes everything from dual-band radios to ultra-lightweight Massive MIMO radios, small antennas and power-saving software features.

“Newer devices can also install software that can better communicate with management to account for a range of power-saving features, just as newer PCs do better than older PCs,” Gold said.

Another critical component for energy efficiency is the power amplifier (PA) in the radio that is used to generate the signals to be sent, Ericsson said. Typically, the PA consumes more than 60% of the radio’s power. As a result, the efficiency of the radio hardware can be optimized for the specific output power or configuration used by continuously integrating more discrete steps into a single package, adopting new technology such as high-efficiency Gallium Nitride (GaN) and broadband PA technology. band radios, Ericsson’s spokesman said.

The switch to 5G also plays a role

About a quarter of the world’s population currently has access to 5G coverage. According to Ericsson, about 70 million 5G subscriptions were added in the first quarter of 2022 alone. According to Ericsson’s June 2020 mobility report, about three quarters of the world’s population will have access to 5G by 2027.

Since creating 5G RANs in 2015, Ericsson said it has shipped 8 million devices to its customers – “the most installed 5G-ready radios in the industry,” a spokesperson said via email.

Today, there are about 210 5G networks in commercial service, and Ericsson claims to lead the market with about 50% (120 networks) of the world’s 5G mobile traffic outside of China.

In a previous report, Ericsson claimed there is a perception that older equipment on mobile sites can handle the increased traffic demand from more mobile devices and upgrades to 5G, which the company disputes.

“The move from 4G to 5G brings with it a huge increase in computing requirements – they have increased by a factor of more than 150,” Ericsson’s spokesperson said. “While common computing solutions can be used for 5G, to really deliver 5G performance with the highest energy efficiency, you need purpose-built silicon. Ericsson’s System on a Chip (SoC) design is the optimal solution for this.”

Ericsson claims its latest 5G radio system can cut energy consumption by about 30% when used to modernize current infrastructure. The system supports standalone and non-standalone 5G, 4G, 3G and 2G access technologies. “It delivers a high degree of orchestration and automation for operational efficiency and offers up to 20% savings in infrastructure with cloud-native operations,” the company said.

“In some cases, it even pays for the upgrade within three years,” the company said in its report. “Customer cases show that service providers have reduced site energy consumption by up to 15% through intelligent site management solutions.”

However, some studies claim that 5G consumes as much as twice as much power as 4G systems. “A typical 5G base station consumes up to twice or more the power of a 4G base station, Matt Walker, principal analyst at MTN Consulting wrote in a report titled “Operators Facing Power Cost Crisis.”

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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