Wireless industry says deployment of 5G will help Canada meet climate goals

Originally Published by The Globe and Mail
Author: Alexandra Posadzki

Canada’s wireless industry is pressing Ottawa to help accelerate the deployment of 5G, arguing in a new report that doing so could help Canada meet its climate targets.

Canadians’ growing appetite for mobile data is driving higher energy consumption, but a report published Wednesday by Accenture and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) says those increases can be more than offset by implementing more efficient fifth-generation wireless networks.

A cell tower in a 5G network uses about 8 per cent to 15 per cent as much electricity as a 4G cell site, according to the report. Introducing millimetre-wave spectrum – a high-frequency band of radio waves used to transmit wireless signals for 5G service – into the mix will further reduce energy consumption to just 1 per cent to 2 per cent of what is consumed by a 4G site, the report states.

Fifth-generation wireless technology – which promises faster speeds, less lag time and an increase in the number of connected devices – is likely to drive greater demand for bandwidth. But because these networks are more energy efficient than their predecessors, the deployment of 5G will lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the CWTA report. “It is predicted that 5G will support a thousand-fold traffic increase in the next 10 years, while the full network’s energy consumption will be half the current levels,” the report reads.

The report estimates that a rapid rollout of 5G could help wireless carriers cut their emissions by as much as 10 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO²e) over the next decade, even with increased data consumption. That’s an emission amount that roughly equates to 15 million people flying from Toronto to Vancouver, according to the report.

“That is why it is so important that Canada’s government ensures the regulatory environment supports investment,” said Robert Ghiz, president and chief executive of the CWTA.

Substantial investments will be needed in order to realize these environmental benefits, Mr. Ghiz said during an online event Wednesday to discuss the launch of the report.

Although early iterations of 5G wireless service have already been deployed in a number of Canadian cities, carriers will have to shell out roughly $26-billion to build standalone fifth-generation wireless networks, according to a 2018 analysis by Accenture.

The main threat to investment, according to Mr. Ghiz, is a policy currently being mulled by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that would force the national carriers to open up their wireless networks to resellers, known in the industry as mobile virtual network operators or MVNOs, at regulated rates.

Proponents of mandated MVNO access argue it would result in greater competition in the wireless market and lower prices for consumers, and the CRTC has said its preliminary view is that the benefits of such a policy would outweigh the risks.

Other ways for the government to encourage speedy 5G deployment include timely allocation of new spectrum and making it easier for carriers to attach telecom gear to structures such as lampposts, traffic lights and the sides of buildings, Mr. Ghiz said.

Building out 5G networks will require tens of thousands of “small cells,” each about the size of a shoebox, to be installed within a few hundred metres of each other. Policy makers can help make it easier for carriers to access the public infrastructure they need to attach this gear to, Mr. Ghiz said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

The connectivity of fifth-generation wireless technologies will also drive technological advancements – for instance, by enabling more energy-efficient buildings and forms of transportation – that will allow carbon-intensive industries to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions, according to the report. That could result in another 6.4 to 12.2 MtCO²e in reductions.