BandwidthX Blog

5G Roadblocks: The Growing Need for Green Options

Chris van Hamersveld

Vice President, Software Development

As we enter 2020, it is estimated that over 5 billion people worldwide use mobile devices, with smartphones accounting for over half of these connections. Subscribers have seen vast improvements in speed and quality of their mobile interactions as wireless networking technology continues to advance. However, meeting growing demands for fast, consistent connections means overloading existing cells and inevitably building more cell towers, thereby increasing the amount of radio frequency (RF) radiation in the environment and energy needed to power the infrastructure.

The problem is being further exacerbated as mobile operators begin to deploy 5G. While the new networks bring gains for the environment through productivity enhancements as discussed by the World Economic Forum, they also often use higher frequencies that have weaker propagation characteristics. Thus, 5G needs a denser network of cells meaning higher RF radiation emissions and more power consumption.

The FCC’s current research concludes that current levels of cell tower-produced RF radiation encountered by the public are far below the amount needed to cause significant health hazards. Nevertheless, many countries have instilled exposure limits for radio-frequency radiation as precautionary public health legislation. Mobile network operators located in countries with stricter exposure limits, including Switzerland and others with limits set forth by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), are running into roadblocks for expanding their networks, as multiplying subscribers and cell tower construction means surpassing these radiation parameters. This is particularly apparent for those 5G deployments where the technology operates slightly below millimeter wave bands (30-300GHz).

As IEEE points out: Much greater problems [in meeting the limits], however, are likely to occur in jurisdictions where RF exposure limits are significantly below IEEE or ICNIRP limits. A hundred-fold reduction in limits below ICNIRP would mean a tenfold increase in the exclusion distance. A carrier could reduce the number of transmitting elements in a MIMO array, which would reduce peak “worse-than-worst case” exposures but also reduce the capacity of the station, perhaps to uneconomic levels. It would also, most likely, require installation of more base stations. In countries with relatively very low exposure limits (e.g. Poland) this may effectively prevent the rollout of 5G services.

In addition, deploying new infrastructure means using more energy which increases the mobile operator’s carbon footprint. According to Scientific America: The average cellular base station, which comprises the tower and the radio equipment attached to it, can use anywhere from about one to five kilowatts (kW), depending on whether the radio equipment is housed in an air-conditioned building, how old the tower is and how many transceivers are in the base station. Most of the energy is used by the radio to transmit and receive cell-phone signals. The low end of this range is roughly equivalent to an average household’s annual energy consumption.

These roadblocks and environmental impacts are prompting mobile operators to start looking at green solutions to address both RF radiation and energy use. Orange recently said that without network sharing to reduce network energy consumption the ability to cut carbon emission for the planet and serve their subscribers efficiently would be increasing difficult. Among others, Deutsche Telekom also had to recently modify their 5G rollout plans after concerns over RF radiation emerged in certain Bavarian districts.

Mobile devices further away from a cell tower need to use the radio link much longer than those in its vicinity to get the same amount of data. This results in increased RF radiation levels and energy consumption. A device half way between towers may use up to 30 times more data packets than one close to the serving tower resulting in that much more emissions and energy use. Finding effective ways to reduce a devices reach can reduce these levels. One alternative to reducing reach is BandwidthX’s Xpacity platform, which transfers far-reaching handsets from loaded cells to specific neighboring partner cells that are better suited to serve those mobile devices. As a result, those devices will consume significantly less resources once transferred to closer or less loaded neighboring cells thus reducing overall energy use.

There are many benefits to this tower-shifting game. The transferred handsets will radiate less when connected to closer cells, and the reduced interference among all handsets in the area will lower the general radiation and consume less energy. In addition, the cells that receive new devices to serve are chosen so that their idle capacity will get to productive use. This further saves energy and reduces need for adding emissions.

For those countries that have regulatory radiation constraints, the reduction of overall network radiation allows for an increased handset population without going over the limits. Additionally, transferring handsets allows for the accommodation of more mobile users within existing infrastructure, thereby delaying the need to build additional cell towers, and further avoiding increased RF radiation in a certain area. It also significantly reduces the energy and spectrum consumption of the entire network - thereby lowering the carbon footprint and creating dramatic cost savings for the operators. And last, but certainly not least, mobile users get improved QoE. Everybody wins!

Trends show that the numbers of mobile internet subscribers will only continue to increase as can be seen from the latest GSMA Mobile Economy Report . Furthermore, user demands for instant information and interaction will only become more fervent. Xpacity has the ability to help mobile operators expand their network offerings and appease a population hungry for constant connection, all while staying within the confines of public health doctrine and lowering their overall environmental impact.

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