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Bell Labs leads global push for greener networks

Alcatel Lucent's research arm is spearheading a global initiative to cut network energy consumption a thousand-fold within five years
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

An industry-wide initiative to reduce the energy consumption of telecoms networks was unveiled on Monday by Bell Labs and industry and academic organisations including Telefonica, Freescale Semiconductor and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Green Touch Initiative aims to create, within five years, new network architectures and components that will make communications networks 1,000 times more energy-efficient, as use of information and communications technology (ICT) increases over the coming years.

Bell Labs, which is the research wing of telecoms equipment manufacturer Alcatel Lucent, will organise the new consortium. The group has 15 founding members, but Bell Labs has extended an invitation to any relevant organisation or vendor to sign up.

According to Bell Labs, in five years the consortium will produce "a new reference network architecture and demonstrations of the key components required to realise this improvement".

Gee Rittenhouse, Bell Labs research chief, said at the launch of the initiative that the next decade would see "a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide" emitted by the ICT industry, "even in addition to today's [emissions]", if drastic advances are not made in energy efficiency.

'Spectacular growth' in ICT use
Rittenhouse, who described the initiative as an "opportunity to reshape the way we think about the network", said billions more people would start using ICT over the next decade, and "the technologies that we know today cannot compensate for this spectacular growth".

"At the very best we can hold it constant, but of course it will go beyond that," Rittenhouse said. "In 10 years, we as an industry will still be emitting 300 million tons of CO2 every year [without an increase in energy efficiency]."

According to Bell Labs, the aim of increasing the energy efficiency of networks a thousand-fold comes from the research team's analysis — worked out in "agonising detail" — of the fundamental properties of ICT networks and technologies, and their physical limits as dictated by formulae such as Shannon's Law.

Theoretically, ICT networks could run on a minimum energy level 10,000 times smaller than that needed today, Rittenhouse said, although he added that targeting that level of energy reduction was "impractical".

"The factor of 10,000 really comes from wireless," Rittenhouse explained. "The physics is clear — you have an antenna, and if I broadcast a watt of power to a wide area, I'm broadcasting in an area where the user is very localised. Ninety-nine percent of that energy is not utilised.

"If I take the same watt and transmit it down fibre, I can actually do much better... If I remove wireless, the theoretical minimum is a factor of 10 million [times smaller than today's consumption]."

Intellectual property
Asked by ZDNet UK how the intellectual property side of the initiative would work, Rittenhouse said the details of the IP-sharing model would be "chosen by the founding members" of Green Touch. "The idea is that intellectual property will be shared to build on each other's successes," he said. "We really need that to accelerate the progress.

"At the end of five years, we will have created the enabling technologies and demonstrated them."

Rittenhouse said much of the funding for Green Touch would come from governments, which were "a natural funding mechanism for universities as well as industry".

Alcatel Lucent chief Ben Verwaayen also addressed the funding question at the launch event, noting that the initiative was "not about huge sums of money".

"[Green Touch will involve] hundreds of scientists from around the world [costing] tens of millions of whatever currency you want to think of, working together, and [Alcatel Lucent is] proud and happy to pay our share of that," Verwaayen said.

Verwaayen said every participant in the scheme had something to gain from its success. "This will be a game changer for everybody, whether you are looking at the topology of your network as an operator, whether you are looking at components, or whether you are a humble player like us trying to make a living at the middle of this value chain," he said, adding that any technology devised by Green Touch "has to be backwards-compatible" and has to deliver high performance levels.

A host of politicians from around the world endorsed the formation of Green Touch, including UK energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband, who said the ICT industry was "perfectly placed to bring its innovative and technological forces to bear in the low carbon transition as well as in curbing its own carbon footprint".

Miliband commented: "We welcome industry coming together with academia to create the research, technology and solutions necessary to reduce carbon emissions."

The 15 founding members of Green Touch include operators, academic research labs, government and not-for-profit research institutions and industrial labs.

They are: AT&T; China Mobile; Portugal Telecom; Swisscom; Telefonica; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Electronics; Stanford University's Wireless Systems Lab; the University of Melbourne's Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society; the CEA-LETI Applied Research Institute for Microelectronics; the Belgium-based Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (Imec); the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control; Bell Labs; the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology; and Freescale Semiconductor.

Mike Galvin, BT's managing director, research, told ZDNet UK that while the British telecoms giant was not a founding member of Green Touch, it supported the initiative. He said to rise to this significant challenge, the industry needs to work together to produce radical solutions. "We will be encouraging all those we work with to take part," he said.

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