Telecommunications Facing Many Energy Challenges

Monday Oct 9th 2017 by Carl Weinschenk
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The relationship between telecommunications and energy holds many tensions and sweeping threats.

Power generation is a huge issue in the world of telecommunications. It’s front of mind when storms take down the grid and the telecom network it hosts. That situation, of course, is far too familiar this year. It is not, however, the only interest that carriers and service providers have in creating a stable and reliable power infrastructure.

Web companies such as Google and Facebook have revolutionized many of the processes that are also used by telecommunications companies. One of those is securing access to the huge amounts of power necessary to run such mammoth operations.

Today, Microsoft said that it has entered a 15-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with GE to buy all the energy produced by the new 37 megawatt Tullahennel wind farm in County Kerry, Ireland. The press release says that Microsoft also signed an agreement with ElectroRoute, an energy trading company based in Dublin.

The nature of the deal, which is expected to produce data on battery and energy storage, is not unique. The main takeaway is that web companies are thinking of new ways to approach energy which, after all, is its lifeblood.

The concepts around how energy is produced, what its sources are and how it is stored, distributed and managed are changing rapidly. The devastation of Puerto Rico’s grid clearly has given people cause for concern. It also offers and opportunity. People are taking notice. For instance, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello tweeted that he is intrigued by Elon Musk’s offer to provide its technology to buttress Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.

Solar power has gradually become a supporting element of telecom networks. In most cases, these are standalone-around arrays that provide power to cell towers and other field equipment in disconnected, one-off scenarios. If the Puerto Rican network is rebuilt using modernized methods, from Musk’s Tesla and/or other companies, it would be done at a far more fundamental level. Changes have been ongoing for years. A showcase project, however, likely would expedite the transition.

The cable industry is well aware of the importance of power issues. It technology consortium, The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), has had organized energy programs for years. The global cable industry spends about $1 billion annually on energy, according to Light Reading. That figure could quadruple by 2021. The SCTE, along with the International Society of Broadband Experts (ISBE), found that about 83 percent of this energy is used at the edge of the network. That’s a good thing, in a way: Such an inefficient topology offers some relatively easy gains:

As part of these efforts, cable technologists are exploring various distributed access architecture (DAA) approaches to shift at least some of the equipment and functions out of the cable headend or hub and deeper into the access network. By adopting a DAA strategy, they aim to greatly reduce power and cooling costs, while also cutting their headend and hub space requirements, trimming their other operating expenses and providing greater bandwidth capacity as the traffic loads on their HFC networks continue to grow.

Power needs clearly will grow, likely exponentially. A new and exciting innovation in modern business is cyber currency. It’s a complex and interesting field in which activities are replicated in the cyber realm. A key element is mining for the bitcoins, a task done by huge computers instead of picks and shovels. The IEEE Spectrum describes miners as “electromagnetic alchemists” who stress the system. Mining uses, in the words of the writer, “an absolutely stunning amount of power.”

The story is full of extreme assessments and assertions, even beyond mining. Simple transactions are costly because the entire network must be updated:

Because of all that calculation, the energy cost of Bitcoin is high in comparison with that of conventional financial transactions. For example, according to one estimate, processing a bitcoin transaction consumes more than 5,000 times as much energy as using a Visa credit card.

There are many tensions in the relationship between telecommunications and energy. There are sweeping threats (such as aging and fragile infrastructure) and elegant solutions (such as massive batteries and wind and solar power). Hopefully, the pendulum will swing fully toward the solutions.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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