19 January 2010

Mobile phones and sustainability

Filed under: Energy, GreenTouch, Mobile Monday, sensors, sustainability — David Wood @ 1:55 am

What role can mobile phones play in reducing energy usage worldwide and assisting the transformation to a sustainable economy?  More widely, what role can the mobile phone industry play in this whole process?

That topic was addressed at yesterday’s Mobile Monday London event, held (unusually) in Brighton.  One of the organisers, Jo Rabin, commented:

As any Londoner knows, Brighton is one of the further suburbs, and like the rest of South London, not on the tube. That said, a modest 50 minutes and £10 return advance booking gets you there in comfort from London’s convenient Victoria station (and others)

The event was entitled “Mobile Application Sustainability” and featured:

One striking claim from near the beginning of the event was when Galit Zadok described the mobile phone as “the least sustainable item of consumer electronics, ever” – on account of the very high numbers of mobile phones which are replaced every year.  To quote from the Green Switch paper (PDF):

an average replacement rate of 18 months, accounting for 500 million handsets replaced last year in Europe alone, … makes the mobile phone the consumer electronic device with the highest replacement rate in history

Galit noted some positive developments too, mainly over phone chargers.  Again quoting from the Green Switch paper:

Regulation is encouraging manufacturers to make reductions in no-load energy demands, and handset manufacturers are responding.  By 2008 Sony Ericsson reduced the average no-load power consumption by more than 90%, whilst Nokia has achieved 80% reduction.

To further spur the industry into action, in October 2009, the ITU has given its stamp of approval to an energy-efficient one-charger-fits-all new mobile phone solution. The new Universal Charging Solution (UCS) enables the same charger to be used for all future handsets, regardless of make and model. In addition to dramatically cutting the number of chargers produced, shipped and subsequently discarded as new models become available, the new standard will reduce the energy consumed by the charger. The new UCS standard was based on input from the GSMA, which predicts elimination of 51,000 tonnes of redundant chargers, and a subsequent reduction of 13.6 million tonnes in greenhouse gas emissions each year.

I was less convinced when listening to the claims of the Green Switch speakers that:

  • The power consumption of the handsets themselves amounts to a significant proportion of overall human energy usage;
  • The handset power consumption problem becomes worse, with more and more applications included on the device;
  • Therefore people should be encouraged to use simpler devices – or to run their devices in a “green” mode in which fewer applications are enabled.

To be clear, I’m all in favour of reducing the power used by mobile phone applications, since this will lead to longer periods between battery charging, and will therefore improve user experience.  Short battery life is a long-standing deeply difficult issue for manufacturers of smart mobile handsets.  I’ve also long recognised the problems that are posed as the amount of software included on a device increases.  For example, here’s an excerpt of an “Insight” piece that I wrote for the symbian.com website in November 2006 (copy available here):

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges.  I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster.  Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law.  As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet.  The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software.  Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire (or otherwise drawing too much power) as it performs its incredible calculations.

Flood” is the challenge of coping with enormous quantities of additional software.  Each individual chunk of new software adds value, but when they coalesce in large quantities, chaos breaks loose: software projects delay almost indefinitely in their integration phase (think of Windows Longhorn), and users struggle to find their favourite functionality in amongst seething masses of menu options.  As summarised in Brooks’ Law (which ought to be as famous as Moore’s), “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.  In other words, too many cooks spoil the broth.  Like the problem of fire, flood requires more than just money or people to solve.  It requires the right core software architecture, which allows add-on software to co-exist harmoniously…

So I care about the problems of power usage on mobile phones, and about the problems arising from an abundance of software on these devices.  However, I think it’s misleading to characterise these problems as problems of sustainability.

Here, my thinking follows the lead of David Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, as spelt out in his book “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” and in other writing:

Turning phone chargers off when they are not in use is a feeble gesture, like bailing the Titanic with a teaspoon.

The widespread inclusion of “switching off phone chargers” in lists of “10 things you can do” is a bad thing, because it distracts attention from more effective actions that people could be taking.

(For some more details, page 70 of David Mackay’s book compares power consumption for different household items.)

Nevertheless, despite this quibble, I strongly agree that there’s a great deal that the mobile phone industry should be doing, to reduce energy usage worldwide and assist the transformation to a sustainable economy:

  1. As various speakers noted, applications mobile phones can collect (via various sensors) useful information about a person’s overall energy usage, and present this information back to the user.  Here, rather than being part of the problem, the mobile phone can be part of the solution;
  2. Mobile phones can also help communicate ideas about alternative energy solutions to users – solutions that are relevant to what the user is currently doing;
  3. Improved recycling of mobile phones will help too: making more phones software upgradable will be a step forward;
  4. There’s considerable scope for reducing the energy consumption on the server side of mobile phone networks (where it matters most).

A press release from yesterday highlights an example of the final point.  The press release is entitled “M1 looks at 35% reduction in carbon footprint in Singapore“.  Here’s an excerpt:

MobileOne (M1), the leading mobile operator in Singapore, expects to achieve up to 35% reduction of its telecommunications networks carbon footprint by early 2011. This is made possible by Nokia Siemens Networks Flexi Multiradio base stations. The vendor is currently modernizing M1’s 2G network to prepare it for a smooth transition to Long Term Evolution (LTE).

In addition, M1 is set to start an LTE trial in February 2010. Undertaken in collaboration with Nokia Siemens Networks, the trial will last two months and marks another step in M1’s commitment to deliver an energy efficient, high-speed mobile broadband service to its subscribers.

The LTE trial includes Nokia Siemens Networks’ Flexi Multiradio Base Stations that enhance network coverage and capacity, while lowering site power consumption significantly. This forms part of its end to end Energy Solutions portfolio, which is a clear commitment from Nokia Siemens Networks to drive innovative solutions for energy efficiency…

(Thanks to Stefan Constantinescu, for drawing attention to this particular press release.)

If a 35% carbon footprint reduction sounds impressive, here’s an even larger figure to consider. The newly formed Green Touch consortium announced a bold vision as part of their launch activities last week:

We aim to reduce energy consumption in worldwide ICT networks by a factor of 1000.

This is reiterated in the Green Touch description of “challenges and opportunities“:

The goal of this new consortium is to create the technologies needed to make communications networks 1000 times more energy efficient than they are today.

A thousand-fold reduction is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

An early goal for this initiative is to deliver, within five years, a reference architecture, specifications, technology development roadmap and demonstrations of key components needed to realize a fundamental re-design of networks (including the introduction of entirely new technologies) that can reduce energy consumption – both by individuals and in aggregate – by 1000 times as compared to current levels.

Through a focused and collaborative cross-industry initiative, we intend to define the challenge, conduct breakthrough research, and deliver innovative new technologies and sustainable solutions that can be applied across ICT and beyond — for a greener and more sustainable communications future and for the benefit of all.

Their webpage “ICT Industry Combats Climate Change” provides more details:

Research from Bell Labs determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times (four orders of magnitude) more efficient then they are today. This conclusion comes out of Bell Labs’ fundamental analysis of the underlying components of ICT networks and technologies (optical, wireless, electronics, processing, routing, architecture, etc.) and studying their physical limits by applying established formulas such as Shannon’s Law, ‘father of information theory’.

Achieving even one-tenth of Shannon’s lower limit would cut network energy consumption by a factor of 1,000. A thousand-fold reduction in energy consumption is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

These huge gains can only be achieved by rethinking the way telecom networks are designed in terms of low energy processing. Today’s networks are designed for optimal capacity, not efficient energy use. What is needed is a major breakthrough, a radical re-design of networks, and that can only be achieved through the contributions of all essential participants, from basic and applied researchers and component suppliers to network operators, equipment and system suppliers and governments.

While these re-designed networks would dramatically decrease direct ICT energy consumption, the energy savings would be overshadowed by the indirect effects. Because ICT constitutes what the World Economic Forum describes as “our collective nervous system,” touching nearly every industry sector2 a shift in the magnitude of ICT energy usage would reverberate throughout the global economy. By further enabling energy efficiencies across the energy-hungry portions of human enterprise, the ICT sector holds the potential to substantially contribute to the fight against climate change on a global scale…

What kind of people are behind this consortium?  It’s an impressive list:

Service Providers: AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, Telefonica

Academic Research Labs: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Research Laboratory for Electronics (RLE), Stanford University’s Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES)

Government and Nonprofit Research Institutions: The CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics (Grenoble, France), The Foundation for Mobile Communications (Portugal), imec (Headquarters: Leuven, Belgium), The French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (INRIA)

Industrial Labs: Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), Freescale Semiconductor.

The press release also contains endorsements from:

  • Dr. Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy
  • Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, UK
  • Christian Estrosi, Minister for Industry, France
  • Jong-Soo Yoon, Director General, Ministry of Environment, South Korea
  • Paulo Campos, Secretary of State for Public Works and Communications, Portugal

Next time MoMo London looks at the topic of mobile sustainability, I hope there will be time to include an update on progress from the Green Touch team!

Footnote: Here’s a ten minute video summary of last week’s press conference launching Green Touch:


  1. If device manufacturers are really serious about making the handset market more sustainable, they will start to look at business models where only the software is upgraded most of the time. This will cut the replacement level significantly. Obviously they need to make a profit so I would not be opposed to them charging for it.

    Comment by Brendan — 19 January 2010 @ 8:48 am

    • Hi Brendan,

      I entirely agree!

      For example, the few niggly points I notice about my Nokia E72 (which on the whole I like a great deal) could all be fixed by software upgrades, rather than requiring any new hardware.

      Case in point: I was going to say that there was one exception, namely, I wished that a compass could be added to the E72. That would be a hardware modification – or so I thought. However, checking my facts before writing this comment, I found out that there is already a compass in the E72, but it is (currently) only accessible inside the Ovi Maps application. I hadn’t noticed it since I invariably run Google Maps (out of habit…) and there’s no compass in that on the E72 version (yet). A change in software would fix this, too.

      Comment by David Wood — 19 January 2010 @ 9:18 am

  2. I think the problem that they might have with this model is that it’s a very different one to the predictable replacement cycle based market that exists today. It also contrasts with the subsidised model that exists. In todays world, I have a contract for 18 months at £25 a month – with which I get a new handset with the latest software. After 18 months I WILL replace it with a new handset following roughly the same patter (X pounds a month for so many months). Continue ad nauseum. In this new model I might reach the end of the cycle and decide, well this handset is quite fine for another year or two – but I need a major upgrade to the software. I’ve paid off the handset and still want the same minutes – so the operator can’t keep charging me £25 a month. You can already see that it’s much more complex than the current situation. Something needs to be worked out though.

    I noticed now that you already made the point that upgradable software is part of the solution. I’m pointing out that this isn’t going to happen soon unless device manufacturers can work out a new business model to deal with this radical new pattern (for them).

    Comment by brendandonegan — 19 January 2010 @ 10:22 am

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