Creating a greener and digitalised world with sustainable fibre optic networks

Designing fibre solutions and optimising supply chain processes with the environment in mind will have a huge impact. By Alain Bertaina, Business Development and Product Strategy Director Telecom Business at Prysmian Group

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Broadband traffic has risen significantly over the past 18 months, with extended periods of home working and a heightened reliance on the internet for schooling, entertainment and communication purposes. According to data from DATAREPORTAL, almost 62 percent of the world’s total population (4.88 billion people) used the internet in October 2021.

The growing demand means that the need for effective, high-capacity networks has never been greater. However, the recent G20 and COP26 conferences, in Rome and Glasgow respectively, have again highlighted the worldwide efforts required to lessen the impact of climate change. Global operators can play their part in operating with the environment in mind, as fibre networks have proven to be more energy efficient than its rivals. By utilising fibre solutions that are more energy efficient and use eco-friendly materials, any unnecessary supply chain emissions are reduced, and digital infrastructure can be enhanced in a sustainable manner.

Improving energy efficiency

Despite the rise in broadband transmissions, optical fibre connections account for just 26 percent of total broadband connections on average in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To deliver connectivity at an optimum speed and low latency, increasing the share of fibre connections will be crucial in ensuring that countries can benefit from next-generation, high-capacity technologies. The sky-rocketing growth of data traffic means that more energy will have to be dedicated to processing this data, but its environmental impact can be reduced with fibre. While it is more energy efficient than its rivals ADSL, PSTN and mobile, fibre’s near-unlimited bandwidth capacity ensures it is well-placed to comfortably manage the increasing data traffic.

Optical fibre helps to reduce energy consumption in production, as well as in use. During the production process, this is facilitated, for instance, by the ability to switch off when the graphite furnace is underutilised. These gains can then be further built upon when optical fibre is being deployed across networks, from fixed networks to mobile front, back and midhaul, and for last mile connectivity. This is due to its use of spectrum, which can be lit on demand at each end point, rather than constantly. Additionally, bend-insensitive single mode fibre is also the only fibre capable of securing the whole fibre spectrum, especially at the longer wavelengths, by minimising losses linked to macro- and micro bends.

Fibre is also more efficient due to its enhanced stability, reliability and long lifespan. Fibre’s bend resistance means that it has a longer expected network lifetime, which is especially important in dynamic network environments. While this saves money for companies, more importantly it reduces the carbon footprint as there is less material being used. Fibre solutions should also be future-proofed where possible, to ensure that operators can reap the benefits for years to come. This will help to prevent the need for entire sets of equipment to be replaced. Instead, solutions should be easy to install, optimise total cost of ownership and encourage scalability and upgrade options.

Fibre for mobile

The use of fibre enhances the efficiency of mobile networks, especially when used to connect an antenna. This makes it vital for telecoms networks and the fixed, enterprise and mobile customers they serve. This is particularly important due to the increasing wavelength requirements of passive optical networks, and the rising impact of 5G as it is rolled out across the globe.

Sustainable supply chains

While fibre itself is an energy efficient choice for networks, there is still work that needs to be done in terms of reducing emissions and the carbon footprint of the supply chain for fibre solutions. Re-using materials to create fibre-optic networks can have a significant impact. In one instance, using 100 percent sustainable germanium for optical fibre production resulted in annual company CO2 emissions being reduced by 60 percent. This is the equivalent to removing circa 6,800 combustion-engine cars off the road. Moreover, through savings on logistics, storage and packaging materials, the supply chain can be transformed to a greener process. Fibre solutions that are smaller and lighter are positively contributing to this, as besides consuming less energy, they can also be packed more tightly into a reduced number of vehicles for transportation. A recent trial by Prysmian found that 11,000 connections required six fewer full freight transports than if the conventional cable and duct system had been used. The research showed a 31 percent saving on CO2 emissions for transport. If all fibre solutions are created to be as small and light as possible, whilst still offering a high performance, the impact on the number of emissions and overall carbon footprint will be substantial.

A greener world

As the amount of data traffic rises due to an increasingly connected society, global operators can play a part in the journey towards a greener, more digital and resilient world. Fibre offers enhanced stability, reliability and has a longer expected network lifetime, reducing the environmental impact significantly. Designing fibre solutions and optimising supply chain processes with the environment in mind will have a huge impact. This is not just the responsibility of one or two companies, but the entire telecoms industry as a whole must work together to deliver a greener future.

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