The energy abyss, questionable studies… Marceau Coupechoux, member of EcoInfo, is concerned about the lack of reflection on 5G and points to irresponsible haste when the government has made it a beacon in its France 2030 investment plan.
Progress or energy trap? Digital technology will represent up to 4% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2022 worldwide, according to the Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority (Arcep). And 5G, the figurehead of the government’s investment plan for France 2030, is condemned by the scientific community as an energy abyss. Organizations promoting environmentally responsible digital technology, such as EcoInfo, an independent consortium of researchers and computing and networking experts, are fighting to be heard. Meeting with Marceau Coupechoux, computer science teacher at Telecom Paris engineering school and at École Polytechnique, and member of EcoInfo.
After more than twenty years of mobile network development, and in the absence of official data, researchers are trying to measure energy consumption. What data should be published to at least assess it?
Mobile networks consist of tens of thousands of base stations. Each may include one, two, three or even four generations of technology (from 2G to 5G), with one or more frequencies per generation. Each base station handles data traffic that varies throughout the day. Power consumption varies depending on antenna manufacturers’ models, with the oldest likely to use more than the latest for the same configuration. We therefore lack a lot of precise consumption data, for each technology, for each type of relay antenna, to be able to answer crucial questions: should 2G be eliminated to avoid unnecessary overconsumption? What are the environmental effects of 5G? Is it better to use WiFi 6 or 5G? Does consuming more with 5G negate the energy savings it is supposed to bring?
Operator studies actually defend the idea that 5G consumes much less than previous networks…
Manufacturers often emphasize “energy efficiency”: and in fact, it takes about ten times less energy in 5G than in 4G to transmit a unit of information (a “bit”). The concern is that this tells us nothing about the power consumption of a 5G site. If the energy per bit is divided by ten, but the number of transmitted bits increases by a hundred or even a thousand, because users consume more data, the total consumption increases. This is called a “rebound effect”. According to a study by the Chinese operator China Mobile (1), a 5G station therefore consumes four times more than a 4G station due to much higher consumption. Finally, let’s not forget that 80% of the energy consumption spent on a smartphone relates to its manufacture. The best way to save energy is not to replace it if it’s still working!
“What takes precedence is the race for new functionalities, the desire of manufacturers, public authorities and engineers.”
Couldn’t we make old equipment compatible with new generations of mobile communication?
More than ten years ago, 3G evolved thanks to H+ technology, which older 3G phones could work with. Similarly, 4G+ offers higher speeds without making 4G obsolete and without requiring a complete renewal of the infrastructures. So we can develop technologies. But what counts is the race for new functionalities that manufacturers, public authorities and engineers want. For more speed, for the Internet of Things (watches, cars or connected devices), for industrial applications… According to the French Telecommunications Federation, investments in 5G are around 2 billion euros per year. The operators acquired their licenses at a high price – almost 3 billion euros – and all this must be profitable. Consumers are therefore encouraged to renew their smartphones to get the best performance and benefit from new services.
“The only available research has been carried out by interest groups, such as the GSMA 2019 study. (…) This type of study is tainted with suspicion of a conflict of interest.”
The government’s central argument is that the digitization of work and certain activities will lead to a net reduction of the carbon footprint. Is it verifiable?
No academic study today allows it to be quantified on a global scale. The only available research has been carried out by interest groups, such as the GSMA 2019 survey, carried out by the Global Association of Telecom Operators (led until 2020 by Orange CEO Stéphane Richard). It concludes that digital avoids ten times more emissions than it produces, e.g. thanks to remote work, to the mail order sale of used items… However, this type of research is tainted with suspicion of conflict of interest, the methodologies and the sources used are highly questionable.
What is our room for maneuver in the face of such an economic machine?
Citizens must reclaim the technology’s uses so as not to leave it to the market alone. We could, for example, involve citizens drawn by lottery, environmental or consumer associations, researchers, trade unions. For this, mobile networks should be considered a “common good”, that is, a set of resources whose sustainable development must be ensured without excluding anyone. The state could guarantee equal access to basic needs, and these services would be co-produced and co-managed by the various actors. Entrusting them only to the state seems to me illusory, because he has constantly undermined the foundations of public services in recent years.
“5G is designed for the market and growth, not to meet the environmental challenge or meet basic needs.”
Isn’t he the one to trust for more transparency and a more effective sobriety plan?
It should be noted that the French state is already struggling to comply with its commitments to energy reduction plans… The President of the Republic, by opposing 5G and the “Amish model” in a somewhat contemptuous way, himself seems unaware of the problems. Government close to business wants to promote growth and competitiveness, but these mantras drive us right into the wall because they are in contrast to the concept of sobriety. The answer to the environmental crisis would pass, we will find out, by “technological innovation”. If we had a hundred years ahead of us, why not, but it’s too late. And that is to forget that technology is not neutral and that behind this innovation is basically the search for new markets, new profits, growth drivers. 5G is a perfect example of this: it is designed for the market and growth, not to meet the environmental challenge or meet basic needs.
Regarding citizen re-appropriation, should a sobriety plan go through a restriction on our uses?
If we talk about digital sobriety, this question inevitably arises. But what should we reduce? Medical teleconsultations or streaming commercials for SUVs? Hierarchies of needs already exist in France, for example in Dunkirk, with models for water needs (for drinking water, swimming pools, irrigation, etc.). With a ranking, “essential” digital needs would be available at a very low cost; “utility” needs billed progressively according to their impact, while “comfort uses” could be subject to authorisation. But how do you decide which uses are essential or not? Once again, the management of mobile networks should be reconsidered so that citizens can plan the reduction of environmental impacts and detail their driving plan.
(1) I, CL, Han, S., & Bian, S. (2020), “Energy efficient 5G for a greener future”, Nature Electronics.