The Sustainability Debate Comes to Wi-Fi, but How Much Do Customers Care?

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By Andrew Spivey | 4Q 2023 | IN-7078

How relevant is sustainability to Wi-Fi networking, and what challenges and opportunities does this new paradigm present?

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Claims of Wi-Fi Being More Sustainable than 5G Ignite Debate


In the run-up to the 2023 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) this November, which aims to harmonize global spectrum regulation, arguments are intensifying over 6 Gigahertz (GHz) spectrum policy in International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Region 1, which encompasses Europe, Africa, Russia, Central Asia, and most of the Middle East. On the table is whether to allow Wi-Fi access to the full 6 GHz band, or whether to reserve the upper portion for cellular. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions have emerged as a new front in the debate, as a Wi-Fi Alliance commissioned study predicted that licensing the upper 6 GHz band for 5G would result in a 16% higher energy consumption in Europe by 2030 than if the full 6 GHz spectrum were made available for Wi-Fi. The report points out that the resulting increased emissions would seriously hinder the European Union’s (EU) efforts to become a climate neutral region by 2050. This claim has the potential to be highly persuasive on European legislators, who have placed sustainability at the top of their policy agenda, but how much do the end consumers really care for such concerns? And what can equipment vendors do to capture sustainability-related opportunities?

Where Sustainability and Wi-Fi Converge


The crux of the above-mentioned study is that the allocation of additional spectrum for Wi-Fi will be more impactful on reducing GHG emissions than if the spectrum were reserved for 5G because: 1) the resulting improvements to Wi-Fi performance and capacity will help enable use cases that reduce the need for emissions-heavy commuting, such as remote working; and 2) Wi-Fi networks are considerably more energy efficient than 5G base stations. Yet, while Wi-Fi networks may be more energy efficient than cellular ones, the energy that they do consume is by no means insignificant. A 2020 study by Anders S.G. Andrae calculated that if 2 billion homes around the world each relied on one 3-Watt Wi-Fi modem, this would amount to approximately 52 Terawatt Hours (TWh) per year of energy usage. Rough estimates suggest that this equates to around 0.2% of global annual electricity consumption, or 22.5 million metric tons of Carbon Dioxide (CO2)—i.e., a lot! The bill that an individual household must pay to power its Wi-Fi infrastructure (gateway, modem, router, mesh nodes, etc.) is also surprisingly high, reaching over US$100 annually for high-performance hardware. In the absence of more energy-efficient technologies, the electricity consumed by Wi-Fi infrastructure will only expand alongside the increase in demand on the network, with advanced Wi-Fi features designed to deal with growing traffic intensity and higher performance requirements sometimes having the knock-on effect of adding to the power drain. For example, another recent study analyzing the performance of Wi-Fi 6 found that implementing Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) in high-intensity environments caused Wi-Fi 6 power consumption to average around 250% that of Wi-Fi 5. Therefore, factoring energy efficiency into Wi-Fi infrastructure product design could result in large reductions to both GHG emissions and to consumer expenditures.

In recent years, Wi-Fi equipment vendors have poured considerable resources into developing advanced features to drive down the energy consumption of their hardware. For example, a range of vendors, including Cisco, Extreme Networks, HPE Aruba Networking, and CommScope RUCKUS Networks, have developed intelligent Radio Frequency (RF) automation to reduce the energy usage of their Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) Access Points (APs). One of TP-Link’s flagship routers, the Archer AXE200, has even leveraged mechanized, automatically re-orientating antennas for this purpose. The movement toward more advanced silicon also helps reduce energy usage, as the smaller process technology is able to support equivalent functions with lower levels of power dissipation. Such initiatives at the hardware level have been ongoing for many years now, but ABI Research anticipates that more advanced features for energy conservation will soon be introduced into the network management level as well. One of the best models, to date, has been provided by Cisco, the largest enterprise WLAN vendor by shipment volume and total revenue. Recently, the Cisco Nexus Dashboard (Cisco data center switch management platform) was augmented with an array of sustainability insights, including analytics on historical, real-time, and forecast energy consumption, energy costs, and GHG emissions. Administrators are further supported with recommendations on how to interpret these readings and how to proactively reduce their energy consumption. These features have been introduced into Cisco’s data center switch line first, as this is the most power-hungry element of the network, but we can expect them to gradually migrate into the Cisco Catalyst Center and Meraki Dashboard in the near future.

Product materials and business models have also been impacted by the growing consumer concern for the environment. An example of the former are the APs made from 100% recycled materials released by Juniper Networks. As for adapting business models, many vendors have introduced circular economy programs, where products are returned after use to be refurbished and reused by subsequent customers. These provide enterprises disposing of old equipment with a low-cost and environmentally-friendly method to do so, while enterprises purchasing refurbished equipment can reduce their environmental footprint during procurement. Cisco’s Takeback and Reuse Program is one of the most comprehensive of such schemes, which sees 54% of all returned equipment being refurbished and resold, and the remainder recycled. Cisco has gone even further by introducing an Environmental Sustainability Specialization for its worldwide network of partners. Graduates of this specialism can not only prove their sustainability credentials to potential clients, but can also access exclusive co-branded sustainability materials and a 7% discount on products, which the customer agrees to return to Cisco for its Takeback and Reuse Program after use.

Addressing Energy Efficiency-Related Wi-Fi Opportunities


While sustainability may be a responsibility, it is also an opportunity. To capture some of the untapped sustainability opportunities in WLAN, vendors should consider some of the following strategies:  

  • Emphasize Higher Return on Investment (ROI) and Lower Total Cost of Ownership (TCO): While virtually all consumers agree with the sentiment that sustainability is a priority, they do not necessarily wish to pay more for such solutions. Therefore, when strategizing value propositions for products, highlight how energy-efficient technologies will help drive up the ROI and reduce the TCO for customers.
  • Enable Remote Troubleshooting: Remote troubleshooting of network issues can not only increase efficiencies, drive down operating costs for service providers/hardware vendors, and increase customer satisfaction, but it can also negate the need for unnecessary, CO2-producing trips to the customer site.
  • Circular Economy Initiatives: All equipment vendors should introduce frameworks for customers to return equipment after use for them to be refurbished and then resold. Such schemes are a win-win for all parties, as it can help companies attain Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) targets, simplify the disposal of old equipment, and enable vendors to extract greater total value from their products during their second life. To further incentivize repeat business, offer customers who return equipment compelling discounts on their next purchase, an initiative that will also assist with network lifecycle management.
  • Real-Time Analytics: Develop tools for end-to-end visibility of network energy usage and costs, with benchmarking to measure sustainability levels and proactive recommendations for improving energy efficiency. Such functionality can be incorporated into digital twin models, so that the energy-efficiency of new topologies, automations, policies, etc. can be evaluated prior to deployment.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)-Driven Automation: Leverage intelligent automation to deliver energy efficiency. For example, use scheduled transmission windows for specific clients, with the clients powered down outside this period. Network analysis could also determine whether current connectivity demands could still be satisfied if a proportion of the WLAN APs or 802.11 radios were to be powered down.
  • Electricity Usage and Emissions Forecasting: Introduce tools for predicting the long-term energy consumption and costs for the lifecycle of the network. This will support clients in reaching climate goals and enable them to more accurately forecast ROI and TCO. This feature will enable vendors to demonstrate their sustainability credentials to clients, a potential additional area of differentiation from the competition.



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