Editorial Feature

Cradle to the Grave: Sustainability and the Life of a Base Station

Image Credit: TheOldhiro/Shutterstock.com

By Andrew Burrell, Head of Marketing, Ultra Broadband & Analytics services, Nokia

Base stations are the parts of telecom networks that connect our mobile phones to the internet. They are often attached to the masts you see on top of buildings or along the side of motorways. They transmit radio signals across a geographical area, receiving replies from mobile phones that are within this coverage area (or cell). The size of the cell varies – in the countryside, the radius of the cell will be several kilometres, whereas in a city, it may be a few hundred meters across or less. 

Around 30 years ago, telecom networks were huge monstrosities, the size of a garden shed – but some modern “small cells” are no larger than an iPad and weigh only a handful of kilograms.

Over seven million base stations are deployed around the world, and this number will increase exponentially with the deployment of 5G networks. 

Base stations today consume more than 70% of the total energy used in mobile networks. As an industry, we need to look at the entire lifecycle in a way that is no longer linear (from the cradle to the grave), but circular (what happens beyond the ‘grave’) to find ways to minimize the environmental impact.

Oulu Factory: Where Base Stations are Born

More than 1,000 4G and 5G base stations are “born” every day inside Nokia’s factory in Oulu, close to the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. 

The factory is powered from 100% renewable energy sources, and automation, digital twin technology and other advanced methods are used to minimize waste and maximize the efficiency of the manufacturing process. 

The factory has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as an ”Advanced 4th Industrial Revolution Lighthouse.”

Circular thinking can reduce the number of raw materials needed to create base stations, which include plastics, glass, and ceramics, with metals such as aluminum, steel, brass, copper, and tin accounting for around 80% of the weight.

This reduction in size and components leads to a decrease in weight, packaging and the space that the base station takes up, so fewer vehicles are needed to transport them to customers with less fuel being consumed as a result. 

Deployment in the Field

Modern networks can now be deployed in a far more sustainable way. Through digitalization, we are eliminating unnecessary site visits and reducing the time needed to deploy new base station sites by up to 50%.

Site surveys, installation, and acceptance testing have traditionally been manual processes, requiring multiple visits by different engineers. A 360-degree digital recording of all site details can now be captured through a drone or mobile device. Site survey reports and site designs can be digitalized, eliminating the use of paper and avoiding human error.

Quality checks no longer need multiple parties to visit the site: now a single person with a video collaboration enabled smartphone is sufficient, and the other parties can participate remotely. All of this means reduced travel to every site, which, given the millions of sites that will be rolled out for 5G networks, gives significant carbon emission reductions and considerable cost savings.

Working Life

A base station might typically be part of a mobile network for 5-10 years, and during that time, a busy site could handle a Petabyte of data.

A base station spends its working life providing broadband connectivity to consumers and businesses, and unsurprisingly this accounts for the vast majority (93%) of greenhouse gas emissions. Luckily, there is plenty that we can do to minimize the environmental impact.

Efficient rectifiers can be used to convert the AC electricity supplied by the power company to DC power needed by the base station. Various energy saving features can also be easily implemented in today’s networks. These features are controlled by software, meaning that they can be switched on or off remotely, and can reduce energy consumption by up to 30%

We can use artificial intelligence (AI) to increase these gains quite significantly. For example, AI powers-down parts of the network when they are not needed. AI enables us to implement much more aggressive power-saving schemes by understanding the complex dependencies between over-lapping coverage areas, while ensuring that there is no adverse impact on data speeds or customer experience.

Most base station sites are powered from the electricity grid, and replacing this with 100% solar energy is not always viable. However, adding a single solar panel to each site could replace up to 10% of the electricity used, and provide a quick payback. 

Diesel generators are used in locations where there is no reliable power supply, and in recent years solar energy has become a very competitive alternative. This is the result of two developments:

  • Decreasing photovoltaic panel prices
  • More advanced base station battery solutions, with the latest lithium batteries better than traditional lead options.

Operators are also starting to source more of their energy from larger, centralized solar farms. For example, in Spain, Orange recently announced an agreement with Iberdrola to buy renewable energy for at least 12 years.

Base stations are essentially big computers, and computers do not work very well when they become hot. Air conditioning is typically used to keep the equipment at a stable operating temperature. 

Liquid Cooling is a Nokia innovation that uses water to cool the base station, removing the need for noisy fans and air conditioning. Nokia and Elisa Finland recently announced how this could reduce energy costs in 5G networks by 30% and CO2 emissions by approximately 80%.

The life span of a base station is extended by repairing or replacing parts that have become faulty or degraded. Operators add new hardware units or activate software features to increase capacity and provide new functionality, and much of the original equipment is often swapped out.

End of Life

What happens when a base station gets too old for use? Most vendors offer “Asset Recovery” services. Before recycling, it is inspected to see if it can be re-used elsewhere.  With the circular economy in mind, materials corresponding to 92% of the total mass of Nokia’s products are recycled. The remaining 5% is used in energy recovery. Less than 3% ends up in a specialized landfill.

During 2019, Nokia’s asset recovery service recycled 4000 metric tons of old telecommunications equipment and refurbished approximately 56,000 units.

5G and the Circular Economy

As we look to the future, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. New technology always brings new possibilities. For example, because of advances in the way they transmit and receive radio signals, we expect 5G base stations to be up to 100 times more efficient in their use of energy.

Nokia currently has a strong focus on the circular economy, which is helping to increase its recycling and re-use of materials in the manufacture of new products. This will also help to close the gap and minimize waste.

References and Further Reading

Nokia. Nokia's digitalization of its 5G Oulu factory recognized by the World Economic Forum as an "Advanced 4th Industrial Revolution Lighthouse" [Online] Available at: https://www.nokia.com/about-us/news/releases/2019/07/03/nokias-digitalization-of-its-5g-oulu-factory-recognized-by-the-world-economic-forum-as-an-advanced-4th-industrial-revolution-lighthouse/

Nokia. Digital design and deployment. [Online] Available at: https://www.nokia.com/networks/mobile-networks/network-planning-and-optimization/

GSMA. Energy Efficiency: An Overview. [Online] Available at: https://www.gsma.com/futurenetworks/wiki/energy-efficiency-2/

Nokia. People and Planet Report 2019: Nokia. [Online] Available at: https://www.nokia.com/sites/default/files/2020-03/Nokia_People_and_Planet_Report_2019.pdf

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