Sustainability: The Priority for Next Generation of Wireless Connectivity

For any technology to be a harbinger of change, it must impeccably balance the demands of the individual, communities, and of course that of the planet. If businesses hope to maximize the viability of next-gen wireless connectivity, it will be naive not to examine the pertinent challenges alongside the distinct opportunities promised by them.

As the world recovers from the pandemic, long-term sustainability concerns are becoming increasingly central to critical institutional choices. This compels organizations to evaluate priorities and optimize reforms in their business practices, embracing ESG along with financial materiality and thus, broader stakeholder concerns. Spearheading this shift is the telecom sector, upholding the digital backbone of global value chains. Here the 5th Generation of wireless communication with sub-millisecond latency and ultra-high throughput offers many promises for ongoing socio-economic transformation at scale. 

However, for any technology to be a harbinger of change, it must impeccably balance the demands of the individual, communities, and of course that of the planet. If businesses hope to maximize the viability of next-gen wireless connectivity, it will be naive not to examine the pertinent challenges alongside the distinct opportunities promised by them. The global telecom sector must therefore make sustainability their next Big Priority to ensure that the benefits permeate homogeneously across different strata of society to bridge the ever-increasing Digital Divide as well as address imminent issues like climate change.

Mobile technology allows for mass wireless adoption

5G's success depends on powerful wireless technology applications. This means smartphone carriers will become instrumental in expanding 5G/6G and other forms of wireless technology. 5G is gradually evolving into an ecosystem with cross-dimensional applications for both individuals and enterprises. As 5G network coverage expands and its use-cases proliferate, the spectrum owners and service operators are best positioned to innovate using the technology as a platform and influence how it delivers value to serve the common good, changing how our society operates. 

The agility of the 5G makes it suitable for seamlessly driving a broad range of use-cases. Unlike private and public LTE, 5G is distributed over many frequency bands, each with its unique set of features. The high-band spectrum of 5G (mmWave sub-6 GHz) is readily interrupted and covers short distances, yet it offers extremely low latency and fast throughput. 

Balancing the cost of technology 

The motive behind the emerging 5G technology is to permit an unprecedented surge in the number of connected devices per unit area. This allows it to drive the digital transformation of processes and bring reliable connectivity to the underserved. These ambitions are often countered by predictions from certain quarters, estimating a steep rise in worldwide energy consumption. It is why, adoption and manufacturing considerations aside, wireless technology raises pertinent questions about its impact on climate change. 

However, before 5G was ever introduced, roughly 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions were attributable to ICT alone. On the other hand, 5G wields the potential to reduce CO2 emission by 15-20%. Additionally, a proactive adoption of the 5G specification for mobile telecom protocols designed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), an umbrella entity of several international standards, assures a 90% reduction in operational energy signatures. 

Predicting the social impact of 5G

Much is made of the advantages that will accrue to the communities, especially across the Global South, due to unrestricted access to wireless communication. But what will make 5G and related technology sustainable, is if it is accessible by those at the bottom of the pyramid who still remain unconnected. The implications are indeed significant for the teeming millions across the globe, whose existence continues to be challenged daily by inadequate access to education, healthcare, livelihood, and other means of social protection and economic mobility. 

Measuring the environmental impact of 5G 

Along with all the benefits, however, there seems to be apprehension that the upcoming 5G technology will be detrimental to fragile ecosystems. Millimeter waves are the primary component of the 5G network that will have been identified to contribute to such an impact. But studies demonstrate that 5G wireless technology has minimal environmental consequences as compared to traditional communication networks. Accessing news on a handheld device, for instance, compared to reading a regular newspaper, led to reduced emission of carbon dioxide by 32-140 times, as well as lowered usage of water by 26-67 times. 

But what if this technology is not produced in an environmentally sound way? Well, then it defeats all the pros of the offering! The argument here is that adoption of 5G or other wireless communication will result in a substantial increase in manufacturing operations, waste and ultimately adversely affect the environment. It is imperative, therefore, that corporates redesign their operations, create efficiencies and invest in more proficient technology and renewables to bring down the carbon footprint of such wireless devices as well as their own processes. They need to monitor and innovate on GHG emission reduction, waste management, and use of resources to ensure they are able to transition to a circular economy from a linear one. But it does not stop here. Corporates need to drive this cognizance across their value chains enabling them to operate just as optimally and efficiently. 

SMEs and other smaller players, especially in developing markets may not be able to sustain the rate of growth, adopting environmentally unviable ways of working to meet dramatically increased demand. E-waste is another aspect often discussed in relation to the increasing use of wireless tech. This is where corporates need to step in to drive sustainable sourcing. They need to build eco-friendly value chains where elements like waste management, GHG emission reduction, resource circularity, and others can be closely monitored and prioritized.  And by capacitating local partners, they can support them in transitioning to greener operations. Through collaborative efforts, they can work with their partners to innovate and adopt energy-efficient and newer ways to reduce, reuse and recycle, thereby moving toward more circular use of limited resources. Ultimately, partnerships need to be forged to facilitate this across industries and reinforced through policy as well, to create a holistic support ecosystem. Only then will 5G and other wireless technology truly make a difference and benefit the environment as well as the underserved millions. 

Mapping the way forward

With the progress of 5G and associated technology, it is essential that corporations and small businesses throughout the world pause and examine the multifaceted effects of 5G before rushing for its widespread adoption and implementation. Businesses that advocate for the spread of 5G may benefit economically in the short run due to the immediate benefits leveraged by their customers. But, it is also critical for them to monitor 5G's long-term consequences to acknowledge and address the risks adequately. They need to pioneer measures that will ensure 5G and such tech remain green and beneficial, rather than energy-intensive and detrimental to the environment.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house