This huge carbon footprint flies below the radar

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption, the bulk of attention within the IT industry may focus on search engine companies and server farms, but the reality is their offenses are “paltry” compared to telecommunication service providers, according to an IDC Canada analyst.

The telcos may be the larger and more invasive emitters, but they’re not front and centre from the perspective of the IT industry, said Lawrence Surtees, vice-president of communications research and principal analyst at Toronto-based research firm IDC Canada Ltd.

“It’s not rocket science, but people haven’t latched on to that,” he said during a discussion of his research report, Beyond Green IT: Network Provider Impact on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Best ICT Practices to Enable Carbon Footprint Reduction. The report discusses Telus Corp. and MTS-Allstream, among other telecom companies, and their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint.

“Telecommunication service providers, like all other ICT players, can do a whole lot of things to improve and reduce their environment footprint,” he said.

From an IT user perspective, attention is given to obvious offenders like energy-sucking data centres, which are proliferating in size and number. Furthermore, that perception is also influenced by the fact that the data centre is more easily quantified and measured “even vaguely”, said Surtees, adding for instance that IDC has tracked the number of servers shipped over a particular time frame.

Besides data centres, the emergence and rapid spread of Web 2.0 applications are helping fuel this perspective in the IT industry. The imminent and identifiable fear, he said, is that there won’t be enough electricity to meet the soaring demands of data centres and Web 2.0 applications.

But it’s tricky to measure the environmental impact of telcos because their infrastructure is typically diffused and composed of multiple components, not just servers, said Surtees.

Telcos are nonetheless beginning to address their environmental impact. In Canada, according to the report, Telus realized an improvement in air emissions in 2006 after replacing 10 per cent of its consumed energy from coal and gas with green energy. That same year, it had 35 solar-powered installations in service that allowed it to forego the need for the equivalent in diesel generator use.

MTS-Allstream’s green strategy included replacing 1,000 kilometres of radio route with more environmentally-friendly fibre optics. It also installed digital radio in remote areas to provide a broader service area, an approach that required less sites dependent on power generation and less transportation to access them.

Despite this, North American telcos tend to “lag way behind” European ones in terms of green approaches, and drilling down even further, Canada remains behind the U.S., he said. The fact that Canada has abundant hydro is likely a reason carbon footprint reduction is relatively less of a priority, he added.

The U.K.-based company BT PLC – which Surtees described as “probably the world’s most environmentally conscious” telco – has set a goal of deriving more than 60 per cent of electricity from renewable wind energy for all of its U.K.-based operations. It’s a great case of “farsighted thinking and what’s possible today”, thinks Surtees, and it ought to serve as a wake-up call to other telcos especially those in North America.

Meanwhile in Canada, he said, comparable companies are boasting that “‘We’re playing with a couple of solar panels, aren’t we great?’ Well, that’s nice but how long will it take you to get 60 per cent renewable?”

Surtees doesn’t perceive cost as a barrier to the adoption of green technologies, and in fact said the fundamental consensus in the industry is that the decision to pursue green IT is not influenced by the cost to the business. Money may be a factor in initial discussions, but businesses quickly realize they’ll “make and save more money by being green.”

The report suggests strategies that telcos can engage in to reduce their carbon footprint. For instance, they can incorporate carbon reduction targets and sustainability into annual budgets and procurement practices; use alternate energy sources in the network infrastructure; co-locate telecom infrastructure facilities with renewable energy sites; adopt standby mode software at all wireless base stations; provide customers with smart battery chargers that automatically shut off; consider biofuels in generator diesel farms; and, set more aggressive goals to convert utility vehicle fleets to green vehicles.

But besides those measures, the very existence of telcos and the services they offer play a role in reducing carbon footprint. Customers can use telco services and features, for instance, to “virtualize themselves” and participate in meetings via conference calls as opposed to commuting to the site, said Surtees.