Telenor is taking a strategic and coordinated approach to increasing energy efficiency across its global operations. In an interview with Inform, Gaurav Arora, Director, Sustainability & Operational Excellence, Telenor Group IHQ, details the company’s measures, including its use of AI, its work with external suppliers, and how addressing energy efficiency supports the company’s wider digital transformation.
In 2019, Telenor decided to standardize governance around energy efficiency, based on a bird’s view of the whole Group’s operations. As a result, it established a global program for energy efficiency, led out of Asia, to identify initiatives that could be adapted for use across all business units.
Networks, which account for more than 90% of the company's energy consumption, were a key focus everywhere. However, the Group faced different challenges in Asia and the Nordic countries.
Whereas in Asia there was concern about fuel dependency due to grid availability, in Nordic countries investing in 5G and “building high capacity and data networks means we require more focus on legacy network phaseouts to derive efficiency,” explains Arora.
In Malaysia and Thailand the focus was on improving the energy efficiency of site operations, and during 2019/2020 Telenor introduced analytics tools to gain more visibility into site and network operations.
“We started by doing a benchmark and looking into what we were actually consuming at the site level. In some cases we found a major gap of 30% to 35% between our spend on energy and the amount of energy we needed to operate our active network,” Arora explains.
“So, we focused on bringing energy consumption in line with what we required to generate signals, transfer data and serve customers,” he adds. “That was a quick fix. Within less than a year of starting we saw a 2% reduction in energy [consumption], while at the same time increasing network capacity to support a 35% rise in traffic.”
Another early win was switching from network equipment, which relied on air conditioning to maintain it at a steady temperature indoors, to more rugged equipment, designed for outdoor use. According to Arora, most manufacturers now supply outdoor equipment that enables a 15% to 20% savings on energy consumption.
“At times, however, it required careful negotiation with site owners,” he adds. “Some owners do not want changes on their sites, so it required an effort to educate them that this is a much more recent and more ecofriendly solution that will require less power and you will have a much lighter site model setup on your rooftop.”
The decommissioning conundrum
In 2020 the team started looking at the Nordic countries, which presented different problems as well as opportunities. Notably, “we have a legacy network which requires more cleanups,” says Arora.
A large decommissioning program for fixed networks in the Nordic countries is helping. However, because operations in the Nordics are very lean, site-level optimization is complicated.
“For example, there are some very big sites set up for fixed and mobile, which use heaters and aircons to maintain temperature with large infrastructure,” Arora explains. “So, going ahead we [have to consider] whether to consolidate the sites into a smaller space.”
He adds: “In Norway, a standard site is a mix of many, many kinds of equipment and some of them were set up long ago. It makes it difficult to … accurately assess how much actual energy they consume on a daily basis, which makes energy optimization work challenging.”
Sustainability-driven business decisions
Telenor, however, is helped in driving efficiencies by taking a strategic and structured approach to modernization that encourages employees to see business decisions through a longer-term sustainability lens.
“We support business units to bring use cases towards the climate board and advisory board, and it is not about only the cost, but the energy efficiency, CO2 reduction,” says Arora. “I think that that whole understanding has changed in the last one to one and a half years. It’s more about the long-term impact.”
Arora explains that all business units, for example, must focus on the requirements of Telenor’s future business.
“It’s not easy because sometimes it does not immediately align with the local business priorities,” he says. “When 2G or 3G networks still have subscribers and are experiencing an increase in voice traffic, it requires an effort by the business to educate and migrate subscribers towards [a new] technology.”
Fortunately, business units are seeing payoffs from the strategy, which in turn is driving greater demand for analytic insight.
“Analytics means better operations, and now we don’t need to push the energy [side of the equation],” Arora says. “Now questions are coming from the business such as, ‘What can we do? What's the next step’?”
A group perspective
In addition, the Group is accruing more benefits as the analytic tools mature and as equipment is modernized.
“We now have more control. We have more visibility,” says Arora. “And many data analytics can be viewed centrally.”
He explains: “Now that the conventional energy features are there, we can see how blocking certain layers of traffic when demand is low is going to impact customer experience. With AI/ML, the energy saving features which were implemented in limited night hours (off peak hours) can now be expanded within a 24/7 window to gain maximum benefits.”
For example, AI and ML allow for the continuous reading of a site’s data and automatic learning from historical data.
“It’s able to predict how traffic on a site is going to behave and [then deploy] energy saving features automatically,” Arora explains. “For example, if most of the people in a neighborhood are going to the office, we can adjust to dips in traffic on a site level. Or we can adapt capacity for an industrial B2B site, without having any customer impact or any experience or changes on the customer level.”
And if there is an incident that causes surges in traffic, Telenor will be able to increase site capacity within a window of a few minutes.
“Now it becomes more like a touch free operation,” Arora says. “Going forward we will automatically detect high traffic … and open capacity within a very short response time. That’s the advantage you get with new technologies and an AI/ML framework. We are continuously engaged with our technology partners for implementation in our business units.
Although Telenor’s analytics team is working with network equipment vendors’ AI/ML systems, they are developing an in-house AI/ML framework that is vendor agnostic and has enhanced both effectiveness and savings.
“We have a pilot to deliver the AI/ML framework in-house, and we have already started implementing it,” says Arora. “Once it’s mature, the advantage is it’s vendor agnostic. Business units often operate on multiple RAN equipment and … [deploying] solutions from every partner is not cost effective, or efficient in terms of management.”
The new framework benefits from input from different stakeholders across the business, including data scientists, the network team, and the finance department.
In addition to improving energy efficiency, the framework will support wider digital transformation initiatives that require data analytics, including field operations management and fault prediction, according to Arora.
“Creating an AI/ML framework helps you mature your operations to a certain level … required … [by] 5G,” he explains, adding that Telenor is also looking beyond network services to cloud-native services.
“This kind of AI/ML solution is quite conducive for [supporting] these kinds of environments because it means all the business units are already moving towards mature analytical tools,” Arora adds.
Telenor’s use of AI to understand and improve the energy performance of its operations coincides with efforts by equipment suppliers to improve their products' energy efficiency. Vendors have “shifted the focus of equipment improvement towards the green agenda. For example, new radios which are coming have better efficiency," says Arora.
Telcos such as Telenor play an important role in encouraging the development of greener equipment.
“We give [vendors] a yearly target that this is an existing network operating model, this is your benchmark, and you need to be for example 10%- 5% lower,” Arora says.
Currently Telenor does not penalize vendors that miss targets, but this is set to change.
“Under network behavior monetization there is going to be a certain commitment when they are selling the equipment … and if they’re not achieving that, we’re going to [apply] penalties,” Arora says.
He adds: “We used to look into a business case where the ROI was two to three years, but now it can be a longer seven-, eight-year business case, if it gives us a good benefit in terms of carbon and energy efficiency.”
Read our report The sustainable telco: engineering networks for net zero to find out more.