The internet power drain

Have you ever considered how much energy it takes to run the internet? It’s more than you would believe and it’s time the industry got serious about the issue.

Have you ever considered how much energy it takes to run the internet? It’s more than you would believe and it’s high time the industry took responsibility for reducing the drain.

Today, the internet accounts for up to two per cent of the world’s energy consumption. That might sound small unless you consider that if the internet was a country, it would already rank as the fifth largest for energy consumption - slightly bigger than Japan and just smaller than Russia.

We all use the internet and I can’t imagine finding anyone predicting they’ll use it less in the future. In fact, our researchers estimate that based on current data growth rates, the energy demands of our global internet could rise to up to ten per cent of energy supply by 2020. That’s a lot of power.

Do we really want an internet that consumes ten per cent of the world’s energy? Can we afford an internet that consumes ten per cent of the world’s energy?

Why should we care?

Energy efficiency not only makes good environmental sense, it also makes good business sense. Our customers, that is, all the businesses and individual consumers of broadband, mobile and digital services, are under pressure to reduce energy usage and costs.

For telcos themselves, energy represents up to 20 per cent of their operational costs, with network elements responsible for about 75 per cent of the total.

My view is that people underestimate the energy it takes to keep a home, business or mobile network going, and how online services, drawing data and processing power from a global network, also consume power around the world.

They see, quite rightly and as the Global E-Sustainability Initiative and others have shown, that the internet can enable greenhouse gas reductions through tools that reduce travel and congestion, and make distribution networks more efficient.

But the bare fact is that the internet itself is a growing producer of greenhouse emissions and very soon, people will be looking to telecommunications and IT for real solutions, not for more problems.

Changing light-bulbs in telco offices won’t be enough. Putting PCs and modems on stand-by won’t be enough. Nor will the impressive 50 per cent efficiency gains being enabled by new network product innovations like FP3 chipsets or lightRadio networks.

Working towards a solution

Working with a global team from the esteemed Bell Labs research institution, researchers from Melbourne University’s Centre for Energy efficient telecommunications (CEET) are focussed on ten unique research projects to effectively change the way networks operate, to achieve a step-change in the way data is transmitted, stored and used around the globe.

This is not trivial, and CEET is an active contributor to Greentouch, an international industry consortium initiated by Bell Labs and dedicated to improve the energy efficiency of communications networks by a factor of 1,000.

The point is that collaboration is a vital component to solving the many and varied challenges at hand.

Importantly, in a world as complex as the internet, incorporating literally millions of network elements, applications, devices and users, collaboration is the only way to fully understand the problems and to implement solutions.

In Australia, we have the beginnings of what should become a globally significant collaboration on energy efficient telecommunications.

Indeed, the fibre technology being employed for the National Broadband Network is the optimal solution for reduced energy internet access while regulatory and business conditions suggest strong incentive to get smart when it comes to energy consumption.

In its first year of operation, CEET researchers have filed three patents and done significant work advancing the underlying efficiency of future commercial network technologies. Research is being expanded in key areas, including cloud computing and developing an energy star rating for the internet service ecosystem.

A clarion call to the industry

Earlier this year, my company, Alcatel-Lucent won an industry award for environmental responsibility – but it was a hollow victory.

We were thrilled for the extra recognition for our work with CEET, but as the sole award nominee we didn’t gain any satisfaction from the fact that we appear to be alone in our mission to tackle this crucial issue.

For that reason I call on industry to join us this month in Melbourne for the inaugural Australian Energy-Efficient Internet Summit in Melbourne on September 18.

This will be a unique opportunity for equipment and system vendors, operators, service and application providers, and researchers, to explore how different network parts contribute to network energy consumption and various approaches that could be taken to improve their efficiency.

It will highlight the challenges, the good work underway and how that can be strengthened by collaboration.

I’ll be there and I look forward to meeting as many industry colleagues as possible as we plot how to make next year’s award for environmental responsibility the most hotly contested of all time.

Seán O’Halloran is the president and managing director of Alcatel-Lucent Australia

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