CREDS update: The energy use impacts of 5G mobile networks

Find out more about our ongoing CREDS project, seeking to understand the emission impacts from the imminent rollout of 5G mobile networks.

Whilst 5G is primarily associated with super-fast download speeds, an important part of the purpose of 5G is to increase the energy efficiency of mobile networks. Mobile data traffic is expected to rise sharply in the coming decade, driven in particular by the use of energy-intensive services such as video streaming. As such, the challenge for mobile network operators is to extend network capacity to satisfy such demand whilst ensuring their networks remain economically and environmentally sustainable. This challenge has given rise to a burgeoning literature on green mobile networks which assesses the feasibility and energy saving potential of a range of technologies. Furthermore, over the longer term, 5G is expected to enable a range of use cases with energy use implications across various sectors, including the automotive, manufacturing and energy sectors.  

The CREDS project ‘The energy use impacts of 5G mobile network technology’ is reviewing the evidence on 5G’s expected impact on energy use, including the direct impacts of the production and use of mobile network infrastructure, potential rebound effects associated with changes in user behaviour encouraged by 5G, and the impacts of 5G as a platform for a range of use cases in various sectors of the economy. This will be supplemented by an analysis of how the promise of green mobile networks is established as credible (or not) through the discourse of key stakeholder groups.  

The project is currently part way through the review of the energy use impacts of 5G networks. Whilst a number of promising technological options have been identified and assessed in the green mobile networks literature (e.g. putting parts of the network to sleep during low traffic hours is a particularly promising approach), our emerging results suggest that there have so far been relatively few studies that model the whole-network energy use impacts of 5G. We also note that relatively little attention has so far been paid to the embodied energy use associated with the large-scale addition or replacement of network infrastructure, the potential for rebound effects associated with changes in user behaviour encouraged by 5G, and demand-side management. 

Over the next few months the project will hope to provide a clearer picture of the estimated energy saving potential of 5G, the key sociotechnical factors that determine the scope for energy saving, and the key policy challenges associated with achieving this potential. Additionally, the discourse analysis will provide an understanding of how the promise of green 5G is established as credible (or not), the assumptions and exclusions underpinning this promise (e.g. is discouraging energy-intensive consumer behaviour considered or overlooked?), and whether its credibility is challenged. 

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