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Science and technology heads to make networks green

Addressing climate change implies completely transforming our way of life

Alcatel-Lucent’s research division, Bell Labs, spearheaded the launch of a global consortium of academics, operators and vendors on Monday, tasked with the remit of developing technologies capable of making the global communications network 1000 times more energy efficient than it is today.

At a launch event in London, the Green Touch initiative brought together boffins from industry, academia and government labs, and proposed to invent and deliver radical new approaches to energy efficiency that will sit at the heart of sustainable networks for decades to come.

Despite an absence of industrial peers on the founders’ roster, Bell Labs also issued an open invitation to all members of the tech and communications community to join the initiative.

Introducing the initiative, Jeong Kim, president of Bell Labs, said the end game of a thousand fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day. But make no bones about it, this kind of shift requires a redesigning of the global network’s infrastructure components from the ground up.

“From time to time we need to make a system level change, and not just make incremental advancements to existing technology,” Kim said. “But in order to do this, we need collaboration between engineers and scientists.”

Using the cars on road comparison, Gee Rittenhouse, vice president of research at Bell Labs and consortium lead, said that today’s global communications networks produce around 300m tonnes of carbon emissions over the course of a year – equivalent to 50 million cars on the road. At present, these emissions are being driven by the explosion in data usage, which, over the next decade is expected to rise significantly.

In order to combat this, Green Touch has set itself a five year agenda in which to come up with the enabling technologies to deliver this 1000 fold increase in energy efficiency, most of which will come from advancements in wireless (according to Rittenhouse if wireless wasn’t an issue here, energy efficiency could be increased by a factor of ten million).

But the main obstacle, apart from the fact these technologies have yet to be developed, will be getting the operator community on board – the companies buying this energy efficient kit.

Bell Labs acknowledges that the network being talked about is very different from today’s networks, which are optimised around performance and not efficiency – naturally so in order to satisfy the growth explosion. But the Green Touch network would be optimised around energy efficiency, raising some concerns that at first, this might result in increases in price or losses in performance.

This dilemma was acknowledged by Ben Verwaayen, CEO of Alcatel-Lucent, who said that the technologies developed will compete on price and performance and efficiency. “It will be affordable, but not so much that this change will happen overnight,” he said. “But ultimately it will be an and-and, not an or-or world.”

The founding members of the initiative include service providers AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom and Telefonica; academic research labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES); government and nonprofit research institutions the CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics, imec, The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA); and industrial labs Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), and Freescale Semiconductor.

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