Alliance plans to cut network energy use 1000fold

Leading communications industry players are banding together to tackle the energy consumption of the global communications network.

They estimate that the global network is responsible for emitting 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year - or the equivalent of 50 million cars. Without a new approach, this figure is likely to rise as both data consumption per user, and the number of users, rises rapidly.

The Green Touch alliance sprang from work begun at Bell Labs last summer to look at optimising communications networks for cost, performance and power, rather than just cost and performance.

It is backed by a laundry list of key industry players from around the world, including service providers AT&T, China Mobile, Portugal Telecom, Swisscom, and Telefonica; academic research labs at MIT, Stanford University, and the University of Melbourne; nonprofit research institutions CEA-LETI, imec, and INRIA; and industrial labs at Bell Labs, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, and Freescale Semiconductor.

The alliance has been put together in six weeks, according to Ben Verwaayen, chief executive officer of Alcatel-Lucent, and is open to anyone who wants to contribute. BT announced its engagement with the alliance the morning after Monday's launch.

Verwaayen said at the launch that the research team, which had grown from two people when started to two dozen by September, had quickly realised that the scope of the problem was beyond any single company's ability to solve and so would need an industry-wide effort.

"If you're willing to embrace open collaboration and use the best brains in the world and let them work on something it can be spectacular," he said.

The alliance is also backed by number of governments.

Dr Steven Chu, US Secretary of Energy, said: “Truly global challenges have always been best addressed by bringing together the brightest minds in an unconstrained, creative environment. The Green Touch initiative is an example of such a response - bringing together scientists and technologists from around the world and from many different disciplines in an environment of open innovation to attack the problem from many different directions.”

Ed Miliband, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said: "The Green Touch Initiative shows how business can play its part in delivering the low carbon society we are working to achieve."

Other governments that endorsed the launch include France, South Korea and Portugal.

The alliance's aim, of increasing the overall energy efficiency of communications networks stems from work at Bell Labs that took a fresh look at each aspect of a modern communications network, including coding schemes, electronics, optical components, routing strategies, network management, wireless propagation, and tried to work out the theoretical minimum amount of energy each could use. Combining those figures, the team decided that communications networks could be 10,000 times more efficient than they are today, or 10 million more times more efficient without the wireless elements. They then set what they believe is an achievable practical goal - a 1000fold improvement.

Daniel Kilper, member of the technical staff in the optical networks research department at Bell Labs, said: "We had to get an idea of how deep the ocean is before we could work out how deep we could swim in it."

The alliance plans to achieve some of the overall efficiency gains by trying to optimise energy usage across several aspects of networks design. For example, it may be possible to make transmission more energy-efficient by using more complex coding schemes, but then to lose more than you have gained in the electronics used to do the encoding and decoding.

The consortium will meet in February to set out a five-year plan, first-year deliverables, and member roles and responsibilities. Within five years it plans to deliver a reference network architecture and demonstrations of the key components required to realise the 1000fold improvement.

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