COVID-19 Network Traffic Surge Isn’t Impacting Environment Confirm Telecom Operators

More Energy Efficient Networks and Renewable Energy Usage are Negating Negative Environmental Impacts  

London: The energy consumption and carbon emissions of telecoms networks have remained mostly unchanged in recent weeks, despite significant increases in network traffic as a result of COVID-19 lockdown measures.

The GSMA surveyed several of its large operator members to ascertain the environmental impact of the surge in services such as videoconferencing and entertainment streaming. In most cases, network electricity usage has remained flat, even as voice and data traffic has spiked by 50% or more.

For example:

  • UK operator BT reports a 100% increase in daytime traffic across its fixed broadband network. Mobile data traffic has fallen slightly since before the virus as more people connect to Wi-Fi. However, BT does see an increase in mobile data usage after the daily Downing Street briefings and the Clap for NHS Heroes on Thursday evenings. These changes did not lead to a noticeable increase in electricity use or carbon emissions, according to BT1.
  • Telefónica reported a 35% data increase over its networks in Spain (26% fixed network and 48% mobile network) with no increase in electricity usage. There have also been increases in data traffic in the UK and Germany. However, at a lower level, and without a significant increase in electricity usage2.
  • The Nordics operator Telia, with operations in Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania reported an electricity consumption increase of less than 1% across its mobile network, despite a 20% mobile data increase. They further say electricity use was unchanged across its fixed and core network operations3. Similar to BT, an increase in data usage outside regular working hours have been observed, probably due to a rise in consumption of streamed film series, etc.

“As an industry we can be proud of network connectivity that is enabling societies and economies in these challenging times without increasing our environmental footprint,” said Mats Granryd, Director General of the GSMA. “Our sector will form the backbone to the future global economy and has a unique role to play in reaching a Net Zero carbon economy.”

Both mobile and fixed networks are designed to be as energy-efficient as possible. In the case of traffic spikes and peaks, the network uses in-built ‘overcapacity’ to support the extra traffic load without requiring additional power. The current data increases have also tended to be evenly distributed throughout the day, enabling easier network management.

Across the ICT sector, there are signs that the growth in data traffic has been ‘decoupled’ from energy consumption and carbon emissions during the last decade. According to data4 collected by ETNO and its members, in the period 2010-2018, we saw data traffic increase by 1100%, while carbon emissions reduced by 40%, and electricity consumption increased around 10%.

This indicates that the expansion of the digital economy and data usage is not correlated directly to energy usage and carbon emissions. These indications are especially important as more energy-efficient 5G networks are being deployed, with the capacity to support up to 100 times more data traffic than 4G.

The ICT sector recently set a Science-Based Pathway that will allow mobile, fixed, and data centre operators to reduce emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. For example, mobile operators adopting the target required to reduce emissions by at least 45% by the end of the decade5.

The total life cycle carbon footprint of the ICT sector is estimated at approximately 700 million tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e): of this 170 MtCO2e is from the telco sector, 190 MtCO2e is from the manufacture of user devices, 190 MtCO2e is from the use of user devices and the remainder for data centres and enterprise networks6. This is equivalent to around 1.4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and approximately 4% of global electricity use.

Mobilising the industry on climate action
The GSMA is working with participating operators and the international community, climate experts, and third-party organisations to advance industry progress, establish best practices, and support disclosure and target setting.

This work forms part of our vision at the GSMA to unlock the power of connectivity so that people, industry and society thrive. 

Notes to Editors

  1. 92% of electricity used by BT worldwide is renewably sourced and 100% for directly purchased electricity in the UK.
  2. All the electricity used by Telefonica in Europe comes from renewable sources.
  3. 90% of the electricity used by Telia comes from renewable sources. During 2020 this figure will be 100%.
  4. and updates due to be published this year

About the GSMA
The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with over 350 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sectors. The GSMA also produces the industry-leading MWC events held annually in Barcelona, Los Angeles and Shanghai, as well as the Mobile 360 Series of regional conferences.

For more information, please visit the GSMA corporate website at Follow the GSMA on Twitter: @GSMA

Media Contacts: 

For the GSMA
Alia Ilyas
+44 (0) 7970 637622

GSMA Press Office