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Down to Earth energy consumption for the wireless internet

20 September 2012 The European Commission’s DG CONNECT Unit E1

As we stand on the cusp of the fully wireless society, the energy consumption of the Future Internet looks set to spiral enormously. Wireless internet traffic is set not only to continue to grow exponentially but will exceed the increasing traffic from fixed networks by 2015. This growth in power-hungry wireless traffic is set to lead to a massive upsurge in the energy consumption of mobile networks, unless urgent action is taken.

Fortunately, help is at hand to ensure that the greater mobility and versatility of fourth-generation (4G) mobile devices does not cost the Earth. The EU-funded ‘Energy aware radio and network technologies’ (EARTH) project has developed innovative solutions that hold the potential of reducing the energy consumption of mobile networks by as much as 70%.

As we move towards an unplugged, wireless society, the energy consumption of the internet’s infrastructure is set to skyrocket, but urgent action is being taken to bring it down to Earth.

In the space of a couple of generations, Europe has gone from a situation in which computers were relatively rare and expensive to the ubiquitous proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) in today’s ‘wired society’, with powerful computing technology built into hundreds of millions of desktops, laptops, phones, handheld devices and tablets.

This fast-paced progress has come at a cost, rapidly spiralling energy consumption, with the associated economic and environmental price tag this involves. Although computer technology has generally become more efficient in terms of the energy required to process a given amount of data, our insatiable hunger for data-rich content means that the ICT sector currently represents some 8% of the EU’s electricity consumption and almost 2% of its carbon footprint, according to a recent Europe-wide study.

Now we stand on the cusp of a new revolution in which the wired society is being rapidly transformed into a wireless one, especially as the fourth generation (4G) of ultra-broadband mobile devices penetrates the market. A reflection of this new reality is the fact that, internationally, mobile broadband subscriptions passed the one billion mark last year, while hundreds of millions more accessing the Web through local WiFi connections. In fact, it is projected that wireless internet traffic, which is set to grow tenfold by 2015, will exceed traffic from fixed networks in the same year.

This growth in power-hungry wireless traffic is set to lead to a massive upsurge in the ICT sector’s energy consumption, particularly by telecoms networks, unless urgent action is taken. “Access to the Future Internet will be dominated by wireless devices,” explains Mr Dietrich Zeller of Alcatel Lucent’s Bell Laboratories in Germany. “The resulting explosive traffic growth challenges the sustainability of mobile networks.”

Putting the energy into synergy

Advances in technology and the right innovations can ensure that the unplugged internet of the future delivers more versatility for less energy. It is with this notion in mind that the EU-backed ‘Energy aware radio and network technologies’ (EARTH) project embarked on a 30-month endeavour to reduce by half the power consumption of next-generation mobile broadband networks.

“When we kicked off the EARTH project two years ago with the ambitious goal of reducing the power consumption of mobile networks by 50% we could not be sure that we would be able to reach this goal,” says Mr Zeller who coordinates this collaborative research endeavour, which has received €9.5 million in EU funding. “Now, 30 months later, we can state categorically that we have surpassed all expectations. EARTH has provided hardware, network management and deployment solutions for mobile infrastructure, yielding together more than 70% energy savings.”

EARTH has focused its efforts on providing integrated solutions, both at the level of individual components and the network as a whole. It has developed techniques to boost the energy efficiency of the vital 4G base stations – which are the most energy-intensive components of a mobile network. The project set up an Energy Efficiency Evaluation Framework (E³F) that assesses the consumption and energy efficiency of a network, modeling an individual base station’s power consumption as a function of load and radio conditions, which it then maps onto an overview of different deployment areas. “EARTH’s methodology for quantitative analysis of energy consumptions is being adopted by other research initiatives and is having an impact on standardisation,” asserts Mr Zeller. For its savings, EARTH exploits the fact that traffic demand differs in terms of time and place and then adapts the network and radio interface (e.g. bandwidth) – and thus energy efficiency – to the required traffic load in any given location following the changes over time.

Award-winning flagship

The challenges EARTH addresses are common European ones and, for that reason, the project pursued a collaborative EU approach in developing its solutions. The consortium brings together 15 partners from 10 Member States, including key industry players – such as Alcatel-Lucent (DE), Ericsson (SE) and Telecom Italia (IT) – and leading academic institutes, including the University of Surrey (UK) and the Technical University of Dresden (DE).

“The EARTH consortium is a role model for cooperation for open innovation,” notes Mr Zeller. “The high impact of the project was made possible only through the credibility of such a strong group of key stakeholders, speaking with one voice and coming up with solutions integrating the work of the different partners.”

This recognition of EARTH as a “flagship project” is reflected in the fact that it has won a prestigious Future Internet Award whose expert jury described the project as having a “strong scientific and technological impact”.

For EARTH’s partners, cooperation was not just confined to within the consortium but extended far beyond. It is involved with other EU-backed projects focusing on the energy efficiency and sustainability of the Future Internet, known as the ‘green cluster’, including C2Power (see related story), ECONET and TREND.

Moreover, EARTH’s solutions are already on their way to seeing the light of day. Key components of the EARTH system have been integrated into hardware and software prototypes which are undergoing validation testing at Telecom Italia’s test plant in Turin.

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