Why It’s Time To Take Control Of Rising Energy Costs For Mobile Data

Why It’s Time To Take Control Of Rising Energy Costs For Mobile Data

Jan Häglund is the president and CEO of Aeneasa specialist in software for telecommunications and cyber security.

The energy consumption of the world’s mobile networks was not a big topic. This is about to change, with many of the largest operators recently reporting energy costs as the main reason for a reduced profit outlook.

The drivers for these increased energy costs are obvious. Many people use their mobile devices for all parts of daily life. The combination of faster networks, new phone models and various applications creates higher data usage every year. The main factor is video streams in advertising, social media and entertainment. In fact, video is typically around 70% of all traffic in a mobile network and increasing.

Some people argue that mobile communications are too cheap for consumers. In most countries, a subscription with several gigabytes of data costs less than the price of a pizza. Mobile operators have found it difficult to pay for services other than pure connectivity, often with a very large (or unlimited) bucket of data. The increasing demand for network resources for data combined with a glass ceiling on prices has been a constant challenge for mobile communication service providers. The large fluctuations in wholesale electricity prices have brought this into greater focus. The cost of providing mobile network connections has increased significantly.

The energy needs of a network can be mapped directly to gigabytes transferred, so what can operators do to take control of higher energy bills? There are various approaches, from rolling out new efficient radio equipment, sharing networks to increasing tariffs, or encouraging users to use Wi-Fi more. We also need to look anew at content (the data) as another part of the answer.

Let’s start by looking at where the energy is used. A video stream starts on a server at a company like Google. It continues through transmission networks, data centers and radio networks before reaching the device of a mobile subscriber. Electricity is consumed at all parts of this chain. However, it seems that the biggest culprit (again about 70%) is the radio network. A longer-term answer may be a smarter physical network – but that doesn’t address the network in place today.

Can the content providers reduce their streaming quality to put less strain on the mobile data? The answer is yes, they can, and it has been done before during the pandemic. The probability of this collective altruistic behavior now, post-pandemic, is low, when subscriptions are based on (almost) fixed fee charging. Convincing these large companies to compromise on their service will be challenging.

An alternative approach is for mobile operators to adopt the streaming category of content and consider applying controls to the bandwidth available during streaming. Doing this intelligently (ie ensuring that it is for network management and that the end user still gets their content without buffering or other delays) can reduce the data required to deliver a stream. Using the advances in protocol, such as adaptive bitrate streaming which are then promoted by the content providers, intelligent bandwidth control can reduce the amount of data for video streaming by 20% on average with no perceived difference in quality for users. To put it into numbers, a 60-minute high-definition (1080p) stream can use two gigabytes, while a DVD-quality (480p) of the same video will only consume 25% of this.

While the high-definition video is obviously desirable when presented in marketing, the difference between, for example, HD (1080p) and DVD-quality video (480p) is difficult to distinguish on small smartphone screens. That difference becomes even less relevant for casual video, like short YouTube clips or commercials.

Using an intelligent data traffic management option can complement the other energy-saving approaches and provide another opportunity to manage the limited resources of the mobile network. In effect, mobile operators can regain control over how video data traffic is handled as a category of content in the network.

A limiting factor is that operators see so-called Net Neutrality creating legal barriers to changing data speeds. Regulations differ in all countries, even within the EU. However, most experts argue, and I agree, that traffic management can be used as long as it affects a category of services and application content in the same way.

We are in a new era, where people and companies have started to save energy by lowering indoor temperatures and turning off lights. Why shouldn’t limiting excess data usage be an option as well, especially if it makes no noticeable difference to the end-user experience? It’s time to take control of data traffic.

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