Published on: Nov 15, 2019 | Written by: Luis Neves, GeSI CEO
Get the economy to deliver for all citizens, improve the social and environmental impact of production, and push carbon emissions toward zero. This is one of today’s most complicated riddles for both the global economy and the European Union. Can 5G and smart networks help solve it? We believe so and that a fresh, demand-driven policy approach can make the difference. Here is why.
New networks are not just networks
Many policymakers and entrepreneurs believe that 5G and fiber are just another evolution of the good old telecoms networks. If you are part of this group, we do not blame you: techies are great at innovating, but they often use a language that is only accessible to engineers and coders. What 5G and fiber embody is much more than an evolution. On top of faster speeds, stellar capacity and outstanding responsiveness, they will also bring intelligence into the network and closer to the user. This has one main consequence for citizens, industrial sectors and governments: the potential for innovation, especially in terms of production processes, is unprecedented.
For example, with computing capacity being delivered through 5G networks rather than at the handset level, it will be possible to transform your regular glasses into VR machines, simply by adding a small antenna. Similarly, flexible and ultra-reliable connectivity is empowering functionalities that will allow automated cars to be launched on mass markets. What does this have to do with sustainable development?
On top of faster speeds, stellar capacity and outstanding responsiveness, they will also bring intelligence into the network and closer to the user.
We need aspirational targets for digital transformation
Governmental policies for digital access often focus only on supply. Deliver X gigabit to X million citizens by date X, and the target is achieved. While there is still a strong rationale for aspirational targets on coverage, what we often forget is the actual uptake and use of such technologies. Beyond availability, adoption of new technologies is where real societal transformation happens. Why not also set aspirational targets on the demand side? This would put steam behind plans aimed at maximizing the enabling potential of digital networks and ICT at large.
According to an Accenture report for GeSI, Enabling the global goals, 2018, 11 out of 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have a strong correlation with digital access. However, access per se is not enough: you can only reap societal benefits if traditional industries, public administration and society as a whole start making use of access to fast and smart connectivity. This is even more relevant in a 5G scenario.
Societal challenges and 5G
In the 2019 Digital with Purpose study for GeSI, Deloitte has mapped the ways in which ICT is likely to have a positive or negative impact on the SDGs. 5G has emerged as a key technology in enabling a range of SDGs, ranging from good health to energy efficiency, upgraded industries, and access to sustainable transport.
5G has emerged as a key technology in enabling a range of SDGs, ranging from good health to energy efficiency, upgraded industries, and access to sustainable transport.
Mobility and automotive are a case in point. In this field, 5G alone has the potential to enable a completely new, smarter and more sustainable way to organize human and commercial transportation. Deloitte found that 5G will have a positive impact on key factors such as uptake of cleaner fuel vehicles, management of road traffic, mitigation of human error, monitoring of road infrastructure, and enabling sensors and wearables. Again, all of this will only be possible if available supply of new technologies is met by a strong and enthusiastic uptake on the side of traditional industries as well as public administration.
What about telcos?
Beyond investing in 5G networks, it is legitimate to ask what telecoms companies are doing to increase their own sustainability. If we look at Europe’s main telecoms operators, gathered in ETNO, we see that the large majority embrace a key good practice: publishing a sustainability report. What is more, almost half of them have some form of integrated reporting. This means that they bundle financial and sustainability data in their report to investors and shareholders. This is also regarded as a best practice in terms of ensuring a strategic drive towards sustainability inside the companies. Similarly, over half of these telecoms companies participate into the U.N. Global Compact and voluntarily subscribe to its 10 principles for sustainable and socially responsible policies.
The transition to new, more efficient networks like 5G and fiber is expected to significantly contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the sector.
If we zoom in on the environmental aspects, we see that many European telcos have already achieved, or committed to, carbon neutrality, or have targets to reduce emissions. This is a very important step, with some ETNO members also pioneering the financial aspects of this enterprise and signing up to green bonds. The trend, especially with mobile data being increasingly in demand, is to source an increasing part of the energy needed for networks from renewables.
What is more, while the investment challenge remains big, the transition to new, more efficient networks like 5G and fiber is expected to significantly contribute to reducing the carbon footprint of the sector. The speed of this transition will clearly depend on how favorable the environment for investment in new networks will be, but the outlook on the environmental impact of new technologies is firmly positive.
In short, we believe that the case for policies that support a strong uptake of 5G and fiber networks is solid. Almost obvious. With stronger demand-side measures and aspirational policy targets, we can help a concrete transition to a more innovative, more sustainable and greener European economy.
Lise Fuhr, director general, ETNO and Luis Neves, CEO, Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) - published in Politico on 12/11/2019