Reducing environmental impact of mobile networks (as well as costs)

Posted on August 24, 2007  /  3 Comments

I was asked to write something for world environment day in Montage, a local news magazine, and I wrote about how mobile could reduce the need for travel (in the long run) and thus postpone the inundation of the Maldives.   It appears I did not cover all aspects of the problem . . .

Is your mobile network green? – Developing Telecoms

Mobile network energy consumption currently stands at 61 billion kWH worldwide, with each of the many millions of base stations producing almost 10 tonnes of carbon emissions every year. How can there not be room for improvement?

Conservative estimates project that this consumption will double by 2011, totalling 449 billion kWH over this five-year period, at a cost in excess of $US42 billion. Actix, to its credit, is hard-hitting: the largest mobile network operators produce more carbon per year than some of the largest car rental companies, with the top 20 carriers worldwide accounting for almost 40% of total emissions by wireless networks.

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  1. what is the carbon opportunity cost of not having mobile phones?
    eg. say i want to make a call home while i’m driving to kandy. so i’ll have to go find a communications center to make that call.
    would i be expending more CO2 than what i would have if i used a mobile phone?

  2. Carbon-reduced connections, Montage, April 2007

    Rohan Samarajiva

    April is the hottest month, the best time to contemplate global warming. Even George W. will take global warming seriously if he was invited to spend some quality time at the Medamulana Waluwwa, unless, of course, the old place has been fully air-conditioned.

    I could have written about how much good we could have done for the ozone layer by reducing traffic congestion, but enough about Chinese highways.

    Let’s talk telecom (or more broadly information and communication technologies (ICTs). What can this expanding sector of the economy do for our good friends in the Maldives, who will be among the world’s first eco-refugees when the water levels rise. And of course for ourselves too, because the kinds of water-level rises that are being discussed will dramatically affect some of the most densely populated areas of Sri Lanka.

    Telecom-transport tradeoff

    Transport of all kinds is harmful to the ozone layer. If we can reduce the time and money spent on transport, we can not only become more productive, but we can contribute to the fight against global warming.

    More and easier use of telecom should theoretically lead to less need to travel. But nothing is ever that simple.

    Think of the paperless offices that we were promised with computers. What really happened was that paper consumption increased, until people figured out how to properly use the potential of the technology. Then, it decreased dramatically. In Sri Lanka, we have still not reached the decreasing stage in all offices.

    Similarly, it is not realistic to think that improved telecom-based connectivity will immediately lead to a reduction in demand for transport and a reduction in greenhouse gases. But it is clearly a necessary action that will yield good results over time.

    For telecom to make a real contribution to reducing demand for transport, several things need to happen
    • Most people must have easy and convenient access to telecom, for sending as well as receiving messages and for retrieving as well as publishing information;
    • All offices and business establishments must be reachable through telecom;
    • They must change their business processes to reduce the need for people to physically come to their locations; and
    • The ancillary infrastructures such as energy, payment and delivery systems must facilitate tele-transactions.

    However, the necessary condition that is the foundation for everything else is access.

    Access to telecom

    LIRNEasia recently conducted a five-country sample survey, involving almost 9,000 respondents, of how people at the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) use information and communication technologies (ICTs). AC Nielsen affiliates in the five countries conducted the field research in July-August 2006.

    This study, which used quantitative methods including a diary in which people recorded each call made in a two-week period including purpose, duration, and cost, provides unique insights on teleuse at the bottom of the pyramid, defined as the two lowest socio-economic classification (SEC) groups (D and E) in each of the five countries.

    In Sri Lanka, the study accurately represents teleuse by 4 million Sri Lankans outside the Northern and Eastern Provinces, ages 18-60 in SEC D and E, with a margin of error less than 3 percent.

    Ninety two percent of those approached (irrespective of SEC group) had used a telephone in the past three months. Of the users at the BOP in Sri Lanka, 41 percent owned the phone they had used. The others relied on friends, relatives, neighbors, and communication bureaus.

    Both numbers are unexpectedly high. As recently as in 2003-04, the Central Bank’s consumer finance survey showed that 25 percent of all households in the country (except the Kilinochchi, Mannar and Mulativu districts) had some kind of phone, fixed or mobile. The LIRNEasia survey shows that, just two and a half years later, 41 per cent of the poorest households had some kind of phone in the house, indicating that the percentage of households with phones overall has to be even higher.

    If one has a fixed phone in the house or a mobile phone of one’s own it is easier to receive messages. Phones outside the home cause problems, especially for women. Only 26 percent of women at the BOP used commercial facilities such as communication bureaus to make calls while 31 percent of men did. Women relied more on friends and neighbors than men (39 percent versus 27 percent).

    Sixty five percent of those at the BOP in Sri Lanka could reach a telephone within five minutes. Over 95 percent could reach a phone within one hour.

    These people used the phone sparingly: 13 outgoing calls a month on average and 10 incoming. Obviously, those who owned a phone made/received more calls than those who had to go to a neighbor’s house or a communication bureau for that purpose.

    Their calls were of short duration, 80 percent being less than three minutes long.

    Compared to other South Asian BOP teleusers, the Sri Lankans made more international calls, explainable both by the large number of expatriate workers and the low international call prices. Four percent of the calls made at the Sri Lankan BOP were international, just below the Philippines (six percent)

    A prior (2005) study conducted while the ceasefire was more or less in force, showed that the inhabitants of Jaffna were the heaviest users of international calls among the four districts (Badulla, Colombo, Hambantota and Jaffna) surveyed.

    Seventy five percent of Jaffna mobile users made calls to family and friends abroad in 2005. Fifty five percent of public-phone users in Jaffna called abroad.

    Teleusers at the BOP used a variety of cost-saving techniques. Sixty percent used texting (SMS) though the levels of use were less than in the SMS capital of the world, the Philippines, where everyone texts and almost everyone texts at least once a day.

    In 2006, calling off-peak and missed calls (ringcuts) were among the most popular cost-minimizing strategies at the Sri Lankan BOP, used by 40 percent and 35 percent users respectively.

    Only one per cent at the BOP had used the Internet. Seventy percent had heard of the Internet but never used it, a much higher number than India (28 percent). What this means is that for those at the BOP in Sri Lanka, the functions of information retrieval using web browsers and downloads as well as publication of their own information are out of the question at the moment. All they have is the ability to communicate, plus whatever rudimentary information retrieval and transaction services current mobile applications allow.

    So this is the portrait of teleuse at the BOP. These people appear to be using the limited functions of the phone as presently configured most frugally and intelligently, though they do spend a higher proportion of their limited income on telecom services. Of the many that use telecom, many have already moved to obtaining their own phones; and 53 percent of non-owning users say they intend to purchase a connection within the next two years.

    So it appears that Sri Lanka is on the way to satisfying at least half the necessary condition for the telecom/transportation tradeoff and thereby contributing to reducing global warming. If the capabilities of mobile phones are extended, for example by allowing more sophisticated information retrieval; more than half the condition may be satisfied.

    What can government do?

    Mostly, let the markets work. After all, this massive progress was achieved by the government stepping back from integrated monopoly supply and allowing greater participation in the market by private players.

    It must, of course, manage spectrum efficiently, facilitate effective interconnection and ensure that anti-competitive actions are kept in check. In sum, it must maintain a good telecom regulatory environment.

    In addition, there are specific things that can be done to make easier for the current non-owners to become owners. One is to help them surmount the barriers posed by the costs of getting a connection (LKR 10-20,000 installation charge for fixed phones and LKR 4,000 minimum for a new mobile).

    Sri Lanka now has probably the world’s highest fixed connection charge. In 1997-2003, it was not possible to reduce this because the government had contractually committed to make up any revenue losses from connection charges from increased rentals and use charges.

    But now that the “rate rebalancing” agreement is completed and the per-line costs of the new CDMA technology is around USD 30 (in contrast to over USD 700 previously) there is no reason to allow the overpricing of fixed connection charges any longer. If the charges are reduced for Sri Lanka Telecom, the others will to follow.

    In the case of mobiles, prices have already come down and the industry is already working on ultra low-cost handsets. An obvious contribution government can make to lowering connection costs is the improvement of the second-hand phone market. Currently 28 percent of owners at the BOP use second-hand phones. This is much lower than in the Philippines where 40 percent of the mobile owners at the BOP use second-hand sets.

    Creating to conditions for a trustworthy second-hand market for handsets by implementing a registry requirement to make it harder for stolen handsets to be traded, as the Pakistan Telecom Authority is currently doing would be a good start. Eliminating license conditions against use of second-hand equipment would create the conditions for the operators to get involved directly, possibly creating the conditions for higher-quality second-hand equipment to enter the market. This will exert pressure on the new handset prices as well.

    Given the high incidence of taxes (at least 17.5 percent of every rupee spent on mobile services goes to the government, compared to 10.2 percent in India), there may be merit in considering a lowering of taxes as well.

    Spending some of the universal service levies stockpiled in Treasury on rural infrastructure is one of the most obvious actions. Giving subsidies on the basis of connections is inefficient and only likely to lead to inflating of numbers and other perverse outcomes. Much better would be focused subsidies on rural backbone infrastructure like India in now doing.

    It will be good if these things are done, but the most important thing is to understand that this is a more or less effectively working market that has far outperformed the integrated government-owned model and let the market forces run.

    For the real benefits, the remaining conditions, such as e services being offered by government and by companies, need to be satisfied. Services such as the commendable 1919 Government Information Center must be upgraded and popularized. But that can be left for discussion on another day.

  3. Interesting take on global warming. I feel there’s potential, especially when looking at everyday repetitive tasks that can be replaced with sensible use of technology.
    Let’s take for example: business meetings! 2 staff travel from location A to B, another 2 staff from location C to B and so forth… to sit around for 2 hours then back. What about video conferencing instead?
    Some of this technology is already mature, yet it’s a question of cost vs. choice of decision maker (head of company).
    Another example I find myself doing every month is “signature collecting”. Talk about wasted time and paper work. So you need to get something approved, now you’ve got to get the signature of 5 managers then take it to head of department, etc. etc.
    What if the head of department decides on a computer signature instead? How many round trips and wasted paper (& time) would that save?
    Overall, the biggest hurdle is changing the behavior (beliefs) of decision makers. Change starts at the top.

    Bob Black,
    dubai car hire