In terms of energy consumption, 5G technology is more efficient than 4G, but its compatible devices will consume more electricity than fourth generation mobile technologies. This paradox has a very simple explanation: 5G networks are more efficient in terms of percentage of consumption per traffic, that is, they need much less energy to transmit the same data as 4G, but their higher speed and bandwidth will significantly increase the consumption of compatible devices.
However, this increase of consumption will not affect too much the autonomy of devices like mobiles or tablets, but it will affect those related to the IoT (Internet of things) with many sensors that have to transmit a lot of information constantly and are not connected to the electrical network, like for example, surveillance cameras, connected cars or medical devices like pacemakers with Internet connection.
The exponential growth of devices, objects and sensors connected to 5G networks, their higher speed and bandwidth, together with the massive deployment of MIMO – Multiple-input Multiple-output antennas and the proliferation of small cells will increase the power consumption of 5G networks in absolute terms. The support of LTE/4G, 3G and 2G legacy networks will also significantly influence the higher energy consumption in the long term.
In this scenario, it would be convenient to think that the solution should be to increase the capacity of the batteries of the remote devices. However, various sources point out that the technology of electricity accumulators is not so developed as to cope with the new energy scenario posed by 5G, so it is not an effective alternative.
In short, data transmission technology is advancing by leaps and bounds, while battery energy storage technology seems to be lagging behind.
Despite this drawback, the sector in charge points out that there is nothing to worry about, since the advance of 5G technology will be very gradual and the appropriate energy solutions are already being implemented to cover this increase in consumption and not affect the devices that now operate with previous generations of mobile technologies.
It is certain that current devices will not be able to use 5G technology, because they do not understand the new improvements in the protocols and methods of information transmission, so if you want to use 5G you will have to buy a new device. And 5G networks are backwards compatible, so current devices will still be able to be used without problems when these networks are deployed, although without taking advantage of all the benefits of 5G or suffering the increase in energy consumption that its use entails.
Energy solutions for 5G
The gradual advance of 5G technology will allow the telecommunications sector to gradually implement different energy solutions to reduce energy consumption or obtain alternative electricity to power batteries. In this respect, some new batteries are already proven to be effective, while others are in the research and development phase.
There are two approaches that will mitigate this increase that are already proposed in most of the new generation 5G and IoT communications standards. The first is called energy harvesting, which is a mechanism by which devices can charge their batteries by collecting excess electromagnetic energy from the environment. The other is the development of new protocols that allow devices to go ‘to sleep’ for a while and only wake up at a certain time to communicate with the Internet output.
The adoption of some of these approaches, other similar ones or none at all will be left to the choice of each manufacturer, depending on the price they want to put on each device and the time they want to spend on its development and implementation.
With this in mind, there is the possibility of feeding the batteries through renewable energy sources or through innovative technologies that will take advantage of the waste heat from industry to power the IoT sensor network. Similarly, experimental technologies are being analysed that allow energy to be generated from various heat sources in order to create devices that do not require batteries.
Meanwhile, Xiaomi has already implemented 5G smart grid adjustment technologies to suit different user scenarios and save electricity. As is explained by Xiaomi:
“With this technology the device will run 5G at full speed when needed, such as when streaming HD video or downloading files, and switch to power saving when performing actions such as viewing text or web pages”.
Companies such as Cisco have adopted similar solutions for their devices, as well as other software-based solutions that simplify the processes the devices run to reduce power consumption.
In addition, a variety of technologies are being developed to reduce energy loss with more efficient power supplies and alternative cooling methods to reduce operating temperatures and cooling requirements for facilities and associated components that have high energy consumption.
In addition to the solutions that are being developed for obtaining energy from the environment or reducing energy consumption, there are also alternative networks to 5G that require much less electricity to operate, although they have some limitations with respect to the fifth generation of mobile telephony.
One of these is the Low Power Wide Area (LPWA), which are actually low power wireless networks that cover a large area but do not allow a large amount of information to be transmitted.
While such technologies are not suitable for transmitting video or voice in real time, they are suitable for sensors such as those for temperature in the middle of a mountain or on a buoy in the ocean, which can only transmit a few bits every half hour at a very low information transfer rate.
For this reason, LPWA networks are an alternative to 5G in cases where battery life or capacity is a limiting factor. The massive use of IoT devices is linked to the deployment of this kind of networks in those cases where latency or bandwidth are not critical aspects.
Other existing alternatives are the Narrow-Band IoT (NB-IoT) as an alternative to 5G for cases in which a constant monitoring is not required, as it happens for example in the fields, or the LTE-M network that was deployed in June 2019 and that also works with LPWA technology.
The expansion of the IoT
In a few years the internet of things has gone from science fiction to an overwhelming reality. According to data from the Cisco VNI Report, there are more than a billion devices connected to the Internet in the world, of which almost half, 49%, are equipment such as medical devices, fitness devices, smart watches, smart garbage cans, etc. And, according to forecasts, by 2022 there will be 65% of connected devices worldwide.
Let us hope then that with the gradual implementation of the fifth generation of mobile technologies and the implementation of energy solutions in line with new energy demands, telecommunications can take a new step forward in their unstoppable development and technological growth.