A session at Telco Sustainability Forum, hosted by RCR Wireless last week, considered how private networks are a driver for enterprises to drive efficiency and productivity, and reduce their carbon emissions along the way. The panel comprised Amit Kohli, senior solution director and sustainability lead at Orange Business, and Stuart Holyoak, director of DAS and small cell development at CommScope; questions were asked by Yesmean Luk, private networks lead and principal consultant at STL Partners. It was an important and engaging discussion; here are the big five takeaways.
1. BETTER TECH (AND MORE PRESSURE) MEANS BETTER RESULTS
The first point, in response to a question from Luk at STL about how enterprises are approaching the “whole topic of sustainability”, is that corporate environmentalism is a boardroom issue – which is considered with ever greater, and ever graver, concern. This is forcing IoT-related technologies into the mainstream. Kohli, full of quotes during the session, raised a variation of the IoT adage that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’.
He said: “It’s like this (other) saying, that ‘the unknown now has to be known’. Period. Gone are the [days] of greenwashing. Things are getting more serious in terms of reporting… [It’s a less] casual outlook [than] in the past.” Holyoak at CommScope said the same: “For sure, [greenwashing] is not acceptable anymore.” Indeed, he noted that RFPs and RFQs across the CommScope desk in 2023 have requested deep granularity about the itemised impact of installing new networking and computing equipment.
More than this, enterprises want to know about the total and dynamic impact of their digital-change projects, he said. “Previously, you put a cursory power [measure] against every piece [of equipment] at the bottom [of an RFP]. [Now you are] asked to design whole buildings and work out… [the] amount of power. You get different scenarios – a train station, stadium, enterprise building… They then roll that back into their solutions – the air conditioning solutions, [say]… It’s very important [and] very, very granular.
He went on: “As an equipment vendor, we are at the sharp end of making sure technology delivers on the ESG promise… All [customers] now… [seek] to define your ESG credentials as a vendor – in terms of the equipment you’re putting into a building. They don’t want equipment that’s going to… destroy the hard work they’ve put in… to reduce energy consumption [with] a power hungry cellular solution…. It is an absolute step-change in the industry’s approach to delivering sustainable technology.”
2 | 5G IS A PLATFORM (NOT SOLUTION) FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Luk quizzed the duo about how trendy private LTE and 5G technologies are considered in the context of this heightened corporate pressure and demand for sustainable energy management. “Are you asking if private networks are an enabler for sustainability?,” responded Kohli, before going on to pitch them as “innovation playgrounds” for the whole customer-and-supplier market to plot net-negative energy usage. “It’s like testing out your curry before inviting your neighbours over,” he joked.
He had another quote, on the same theme: “It’s like the French say: ‘We drink our own champagne’.” The point, here, is that his employer, France-based telecoms outfit Orange, has run the rule over its own energy footprint, and deployed IoT sensors and correlated IoT data, and taken its findings to market. “The result has been fantastic, [and] gave us the confidence that this is real [and] possible. We have started to approach our customers… to help them on their ESG journey. So private networks [represent] the best innovation playground anybody could have,” he said.
But the question was really about how private networks are considered by enterprises, at this stage; whether as an enabling technology or a solution in their own right. The answer is plain, of course; but the perception is important. Holyoak explained the sales-side thinking, at least: “We want to [sell] a private network to enable a more efficient business – which results in power savings every day…. It’s not about just delivering a private network. It has to [be about the] end-result. And IoT sensors in a building… can turn lights off or shut-down a cellular service [when there’s nobody home]. Which saves power – and requires [a network] of some sort.”
3 | PRIVATE CELLULAR IS JUST A SUB-SECTOR OF GREEN IOT
This last comment, about the IoT apps on top of the network, makes clear how the discussion / journey to more sustainable enterprise operations develops – after a private network (“of some sort”) is installed. Luk asked about “specific examples of applications to drive sustainability”, and Kohli listed a bunch of traditional-sounding low-power IoT (practically M2M) scenarios: smart buildings, typically involving dynamic HVAC and lighting controls, plus room occupancy and (post-Covid-19) access solutions; old-school M2M-style fleet tracking, also advancing in the era of AI; and industrial IoT for predictive maintenance and remote collaboration.
The thing is, as Luk appeared to acknowledge in her questions, that few of these IoT applications are of the kind of high-end order that most of the 5G marketing promises. This is partly because those use cases – for connecting and orchestrating high-powered vehicles and machinery – are nascent and expensive, and waiting on future 5G (and 6G?) releases. But the point, as well, is that this is all, or mostly, about IoT – that broad technology discipline that has somehow become unloved and unfashionable in 2023.
Luk asked, specifically: how many of these sustainability oriented use cases are predominantly IoT based? Kohli responded: “Eighty percent of the solutions we are looking at are IoT-based; 20 percent use a different application landscape.” Again, it comes back to the fundamental requirement to be able to measure, which is the IoT’s raison d’etre (the meaning and action is all about AI, or analytics, at least). He said: “You can’t improve unless you measure…. You have to have the data [in the first place]… to understand where and how to optimise… [And] IoT has become very mature… There are a lot of [sensor] options available.”
Speaking later, in discussion about city-wide private and neutral-host networks, Holyoak listed a bunch of smart-city cases, as deployed by CommScope with civic authorities in the UK. “In the UK we have some wide-area metro applications… and you really see… massive benefits – things like refuse management [with IoT sensors for] bin weights [to schedule collections], and bus route optimisation [to schedule public transport]. All sorts of things like that are… about sustainability, and it’s private networks that are delivering that.”
4 | CHOOSING THE RIGHT MODEL HAS SUSTAINABILITY BENEFITS
Holyoak was good on the different connectivity models available to enterprises seeking to drive efficiency and productivity, and to chart and slash energy usage in the process. The calculation, for enterprises, unfolds in three dimensions, he argued; questions and choices around spectrum (public, private, shared; licensed or unlicensed), network (cellular, non-cellular; public, private, hybrid; edge, cloud), and equipment (micro, macro; open, closed). These are all interlinked, clearly, and all hinge on local availability, ultimately.
The discipline, in the end, is to run the calculation about availability of these three functions with a calculation about existing and future enterprise requirements, of course. Which is what makes the sale of private networks – as part of IoT, as part of digital transformation, as part of energy transition – such an involved process. Holyoak said: “It’s all really about how you deploy these networks to improve the business case, and ultimately to reduce power. Because by that, you’ll improve the business case anyway. Right? So that’s the key point.”
In certain large multi-use sites, shared neutral-hose infrastructure makes good green sense. He explained: “Putting in multiple radio head-ends for both private and public is always going to be inefficient from a cost perspective, from a power perspective, from a space perspective. So you’ve got to really combine those together… [to] improve the business case for both applications, which will only result in more adoption of these services… It’s a no-brainer to reduce your power consumption and be more sustainable.”
Interestingly, as an aside, Luk asked, as well, about how the in-cloud hyperscale model is faring against the more-established on-premise version of private cellular, as commonly employed for hard-nosed Industry 4.0 purposes. Have you seen any interest or demand from enterprises on cloud-based private network solutions? Holyoak responded: “We see a transatlantic split… Europe has tended to focus on non-cloud – not exclusively, but private networks have tended to be private. In the US, with CBRS requiring a connection to a SAS server, you have a greater reliance on the internet anyway.”
He went on: “So it has perhaps been more-accepted [in the US] that some of your infrastructure is in the cloud. But even in Europe, I can think of private networks we have with customers where small cells have been deployed in care homes and hospitals with a centralised core network – so you have shared resources there. It’s very possible that some RAN applications can be centralised and shared as well. It tends to be in a customer cloud at the moment, but there’s no reason it can’t be in a hyperscaler cloud. But we see this split… [even though there are] variants on both sides of the Atlantic.
5 | TELECOMS HAS TO WORK HARDER ON EDUCATION (AND SOLUTIONS)
The final point, which came through in the session, was about how to communicate all of the options, and the intricacies of them, with enterprise customers – and, in turn, about their understanding of the architectural considerations of more sustainable operations. Holyoak said CommScope deferred, in the main, to its service provider partners, ‘priming’ the Industry 4.0 pumps with customers. “We work with a neutral host vendor or operator… That’s who would navigate [that relationship]. [But] I would [also] sell the notion of a low-power solution [to be deployed in the] most efficient way – [to consider] sharing infrastructure, maybe spectrum.”
He passed the question to Kohli, who summed up: “It depends on the customer. Some are ahead of the game, some are nascent. Some are looking at a complete sustainability strategy. Some are looking at quick wins, and some are… just looking to get the regulatory paperwork done. It depends where they are on their journey.” Holyoak rejoined:“We have large corporate entities that are all over private networks… [and we have] smaller businesses using Wi-Fi… [which might find] a Wi-Fi 7 upgrade… delivers 80 percent of their benefits.”
Luk changed the approach, to ask about the challenges to marry private and shared network infrastructure with corporate sustainability efforts, and Kohli noted that enterprises are hard-pressed just to keep the lights on. He commented: “They lack a lot of information – because they’re busy in their own worlds… [and] their internal priorities are not aligned to the vision. That is the gap on sustainability because… the traditional mindset… takes time to evolve. That’s where the gap is.”
And this was, perhaps, the big takeaway at the end. Holyoak added: “The key challenge at the moment is the knowledge of end-customers. Do they know about private networks? … It’s all about us getting the message out there… [about] how these applications and solutions are delivered. Actually delivering the solution is fairly straightforward. But this message has to be delivered so they understand the sustainability implications – on the power consumption in buildings, and getting it right. So that, yes, sustainability is part of the package.”
He added, to qualify the statement, that the onus is on the supplier community to provide the impetus to make private 5G – or private LoRaWAN or private Wi-Fi, or, more importantly, the applications these various networking technologies support – easily understandable and consumable for enterprises. He said: “A lot is about the ecosystem, which is somewhat missing… at the moment… I can deliver… a private network, no problem. I can make it as efficient as possible. But if the customer doesn’t understand the applications [on top]…. [to] be more sustainable, then we’re not going anywhere.”
In other words, and again: the network is not the solution; and the solution, to all of these digital-change obstacles, is… more solutions. “The ecosystem needs to accelerate and catch-up and deliver the applications that can sit on top [of the private network],” said Holyoak.