Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


IT sector sets bold target

February 2010

A consortium of information technology companies has launched an ambitious bid to make communications networks 1000 times more energy-efficient.

The businesses, which include AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom and Telefonica, have created an alliance called ‘Green Touch’ to find ways of dramatically reducing the energy consumed by customers using the internet and other forms of electronic communication.

No dates have been set for achieving the reductions, partly because the necessary technology has not yet been invented. However, the consortium says that within five years it will produce outlines of ‘the key components required to realize this improvement’ and a ‘road map’ for progress.

The first meeting of the consortium will be held this month to establish a five-year plan, ‘first-year deliverables’ and members’ roles.

Green Touch, being administered and led by Bell Labs, the research division of the technology company Alcatel-Lucent, includes experts from industry, academia and government, as well as non-profit research institutions, including Stanford University’s wireless systems lab and the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control.

The hope is that other companies and organizations will join during the next few years and that expertise will be freely shared. Discussion of intellectual property rights will be a priority topic for the first meeting, as will ground rules on how research responsibilities are allocated.

The IT industry’s direct emissions are small, but its entire value chain accounts for two per cent of worldwide carbon emissions, and that figure is expected at least to double during the next decade as internet use increases.

Global communications networks produce about 300 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year – equivalent to 50 million cars on the road. The consortium believes this figure will rise dramatically given the ‘explosion in data usage’ expected during the next decade.

The ‘bold but achievable’ thousand-fold reduction would be equivalent to being able to power the world’s networks, including the internet, for three years using the energy it takes to run them at present for a day.

Andrea Goldsmith, Stanford University’s professor of electrical engineering, said the ‘breadth and vision’ of the consortium’s aims would ‘provide a rare opportunity to develop a dramatic leap forward in next-generation network designs’.

However, Green Touch members acknowledge that to achieve their goals they must redesign the infrastructure of global communications networks in a way that is not yet clear.

They concede too that even if they develop the technology, the main obstacle to progress will be persuading consumers to switch. This might be difficult if improved energy efficiency leads initially to  price hikes or performance losses.

Gee Rittenhouse, research vice-president at Bell Labs and head of the consortium, said one reason for greater future IT energy use will be corporate responsibility programmes. ‘We expect IT usage to dramatically increase as other industries use networks to reduce their own carbon footprints,’ he said. ‘This naturally leads to an exponential growth in IT energy consumption, which we, as an industry, have to jointly address.’

Green Touch | Global | Sustainability

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