“Citizens must take back technology, not leave it to the market alone”

Energy gap, questionable research… EcoInfo’s Marceau Coupechoux worries about the lack of reflection in 5G and points to the irresponsible rush when the government made it a beacon of the France 2030 investment plan.

Progress or energy trap? According to the Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority (Arcep), digital technology will account for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2022. And 5G, the flagship of the government’s France 2030 investment plan, is criticized by the scientific community as an energy cliff. Organizations promoting environmentally responsible digital technology, such as EcoInfo, an independent consortium of researchers and computer and networking experts, are struggling to make themselves heard. A meeting with Marceau Coupechoux, an informatics teacher at the Telecom Paris engineering school and École Polytechnique and member of EcoInfo.

After more than two decades of development of mobile networks and in the absence of official data, scientists are trying to measure energy consumption. At a minimum, what information should be made public?
Mobile networks consist of tens of thousands of base stations. It can span one, two, three, or even four technology generations (from 2G to 5G), with one or more frequencies per generation. Each base station serves data traffic that varies throughout the day. Power consumption varies by antenna manufacturer’s model, with the oldest probably consuming more than the latest for the same configuration. Therefore, there is no accurate consumption data for each technology, each relay antenna, to answer the important questions: should 2G be canceled to prevent unnecessary overconsumption? What are the environmental impacts of 5G? Is it better to use WiFi 6 or 5G? Does more consumption with 5G cancel out the energy savings it will bring?

Carrier research indeed supports the idea that 5G consumes less than previous networks…
Manufacturers often emphasize “energy efficiency”: and indeed, to transmit one unit of data (“bit”), 5G requires about ten times less energy than 4G. The concern is that this tells us nothing about the power consumption of the 5G site. If the energy per bit is divided by ten, but the number of transmitted bits increases by a hundred or even a thousand, because users are consuming more data, the total consumption increases. This is called the “rebound effect”. According to a study conducted by the Chinese operator China Mobile (1), a 5G station consumes four times more than a 4G station due to higher usage. Finally, let’s not forget that 80% of the energy consumption of a smartphone is related to its production. The best way to save energy is to not replace it if it’s still working!

“It’s a race for new features desired by manufacturers, government agencies and engineers that take precedence.”

Couldn’t we adapt the old equipment to the new generation of mobile communication?
More than a decade ago, 3G evolved thanks to the H+ technology that older 3G phones could run. Similarly, 4G+ offers higher speeds without making 4G obsolete or requiring a complete infrastructure upgrade. So we can develop technologies. But what matters is the race for new features desired by manufacturers, government agencies, and engineers. For more speed, for the Internet of Things (watches, cars or connected devices), for industrial applications… According to the French Telecommunications Federation, investments in 5G are around 2 billion euros per year. Operators bought their licenses at a high price – almost 3 billion euros – and all this should be profitable. Therefore, consumers are encouraged to upgrade their smartphones to have the best performance and benefit from new services.

“The only research available has been conducted by interest groups, such as the GSMA 2019 study. (…) This type of research is tainted by suspicions of conflict of interest.”

The government’s main argument is that digitizing work and certain activities will lead to a net reduction in carbon footprints. Is it checked?
Today, no academic research allows us to evaluate it on a global scale. The only research available has been carried out by interest groups, such as the GSMA 2019 study by the global telecommunications operators association (led by Stefan Richard, CEO of Orange until 2020). It concludes that digital, for example, avoids ten times more emissions thanks to remote working than it produces thanks to mail-order sales of second-hand objects… However, this type of research is tainted by conflicts of interest, questionable methodologies. and the sources used are highly questionable.

What is our ability to maneuver in front of such an economic machine?
Citizens must take back the use of technology so that it is not relegated to a single market. We may, for example, involve citizens drawn by lottery, environmental or consumer associations, researchers, trade unions. For this, mobile networks should be considered as a “common wealth”, that is, a set of resources that should be ensured sustainable development without excluding anyone. The state can provide equal access to basic needs, and these services will be co-produced and co-managed by different actors. It seems to me an illusion to entrust them only to the state, because he has constantly undermined the foundations of public services in recent years.

“5G is designed for market and growth, not to respond to an environmental problem or to meet basic needs.”

Isn’t he the one who should rely on greater transparency and a more effective vigilance plan?
It should be noted that the French State is already struggling to fulfill its obligations regarding energy reduction plans… The President of the Republic appears to be ignorant of the issues by opposing 5G and the “Amish model” in a somewhat condescending manner. A government close to the business community wants to promote growth and competitiveness, but these mantras lead us straight to the wall because they contrary to the concept of sobriety. The response to the ecological crisis will pass, we are told, with “technological innovation”. If there was a hundred years ahead, why not, but it’s too late. It should also be remembered that technology is not neutral and behind this innovation is essentially the search for new markets, new profits, and growth incentives. 5G is a perfect example of this: it was designed for market and growth, not to answer an environmental problem or to meet basic needs.

Should the sobriety plan go beyond restricting our uses in regards to re-appropriation by citizens?
When it comes to digital sobriety, this question inevitably comes up. So what should we reduce? Medical teleconsultations or a stream of commercials for SUVs? A hierarchy of needs already exists in France, for example the Dunkirk water demand models (for drinking water, swimming pools, irrigation, etc.). With a rating, “essential” digital needs can be had at very low cost; “Beneficial” needs are assessed incrementally according to their impact, while “convenience uses” may be subject to permission. But how do you decide which usage is important or not? The governance of mobile networks needs to be re-examined so that citizens can plan and map out a detailed roadmap for reducing environmental impacts.

(1) I, CL, Han, S., & Bian, S. (2020), “Energy-efficient 5G for a greener future”, Nature Electronics.

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