Vodafone’s green network strategy could be good for business

A simplified achitecture, being "ruthless" on legacy, and exploiting AI and new technology at the right time might do more than meet climate change goals.

Vodafone UK’s steps to meet its Net Zero goals can also align with the development of its strategic operating model, as it leverages the benefits of a streamlined network, increased use of AI and cloud operating models to develop its network as a platform.

Vodafone has committed to be Net Zero in its Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions by 2027 and Scope3 by 2030, and to be “completely Net Zero” by 2040.

So what progress is being made? Andrea Donà, Chief Network Officer, said that although network traffic had increased 300% in four years, the company’s energy consumption had stayed roughly level. In terms of the RAN, traditionally the most energy hungry part of the network, over the past two years it has seen a 60% rise in traffic but just a 4% rise in energy demand from the RAN.

That might suggest that traffic volume is a poor indicator of energy demand. Or it might, as Donà would argue, suggest that Vodafone has been able to mitigate the energy impact of that rise in traffic.

Here are some of the things Donà said that Vodafone has done that has helped achieve that.

Evolved its core IP network to “decouple growth from cost” – especially important in meeting consumer broadband demand. This has involved moving Cable & Wireless’ old structure to a new edge based architecture so that not all traffic (say a new cluster of residential broadband contracts) has to flow to and from central points. It will also continue to rationalise data centres as IT and telecoms workloads converge.

Been very focussed on decommissioning legacy equipment. This has primarily meant TDM, PDH and SDH networks sitting in the old C&W inventory that there were “still quite a lot of”. Here, Donà said, Vodafone has got ahead of the game. BT, for example, has just announced it will rationalise its local exchanges down from 5,000 to 956.
“We’ve done that, we’ve rationalised and the results are really impressive. We have decommissioned 30 legacy networks, which means 116 voice switches and 864 data nodes.” These systems have been inherited via old regional systems via the Cable and Wireles acquisition, that were in some cases still providing service. We switched that off, meaning 151 IT applications, 148 legacy products similar to what BT is going to go through – the Etherflows, the PPC circuits, all of that stuff. We intervened in about 1000 BT exchanges to remove people PPCs (partial private Circuits), RPCs (Retail Private Circuits), WES (Wholesale Ethernet Services), all the BT end of life products. In total it was something like 30,000 Customers consuming 100,000 legacy circuits.”

All of that saved, cumulatively, 167 million kilowatt hours of energy.

That programme was known as KONA, and that has now morphed into the Darwin rationalisation programme that,Donà said, takes a much more “technology-centric” view of the world. “Instead of just focusing on the services, you look at your network and try and rationalise it from a network topology perspective rather than be driven by the end of life product point of view.”

Switching off legacy also involves switching off 3G spectrum, which has already been done in Basingstoke and Portsmouth, and repurposing it for 4G and 5G, which are much more energy efficient than 3G. Donà said 4G can shift a Tb of data for 35% of the energy budget of 3G, while 5G can shift the same data using 5% of the energy of 3G. So even though 5G consumes more energy per MHz, it’s much more efficient when fully loaded. 

Using deep sleep mode in new radios, so they don’t transmit when they don’t need to. This was done about year ago using new radios, and new active antennas.

The operator is also partnering with Ericsson on AI technology, using its own IoT platform to provide real time feedback on how much energy a site is consuming, so consumption outliers can be identified. There are currently about 1,300 “Smart Site sites instrumented, out of its entire estate of 19,000 sites (Vodafone directly owns about 11,500 site). Vodafone is also “in a queue” to start moving that data into the cloud to take advantage of more advanced analytics, Donà said.

A classic UK day for solar power generation.

Finally the operator is experimenting with generating its own energy. In 2022 it announced a site in Pembrokeshire using Crossflow’s horizontal turbines. Donà said the site had proved that wind is able to provide enough energy to generate the whole energy requirement of the site, given a windy week where speeds reach above 10 metres per second. That also enables the turbine to fully charge a storage battery, necessitating an automated switch off of the turbine. Combining wind with solar and storage means a site can be run completely off-grid. Off grid sites might become more important as the company engages further with the Shared Rural Network programme to extend network coverage, in which running power to remote sites is often an issue. 

This week Vodafone announced it is putting 720 solar panels on the roof of a local exchange building (MPX) that will be able to generate 12% of the site’s total energy. 

Another transformation Vodafone is undertaking is to replace 2,500 of those 19,000 sites with Open RAN-based technology. At the moment its reference stack uses Intel-based Dell hardware, Samsung vDU-vCU software on a WindRiver Cloud, with NEC and Samsung RUs. In power terms, there’s “not much difference”, Donà says between that design and an integrated site running on optimised RAN silicon.

But, he added, Open RAN does give an operator the theoretical advantage of being able to optimise for energy within elements of the system, rather than being reliant on an overall back-box design from a single vendor. The cloud-based nature of its Open RAN could also reduce the need for site visits and truck rolls, as turn-up becomes automated. 

“So I don’t see Open RAN just an introduction of a new technology.I use it as a vehicle to really transform the way that we want to deploy, build and operate sites.”

This has also been an argument Rakuten has made for its rollout – that it can deploy sites and affect upgrades via software, although it seems more related to the benefits of a Cloud RAN than Open RAN, per se. 

On Open RAN, Donà thinks that it is still too early to predict the potential impact of the Open RAN RIC (Radio Intelligent Controller) upon energy usage. Some early proposed applications for the RIC have been energy saving apps, for example in this VMWare demo on powering down unused RAN sites or this explanation from Juniper.

Future collaborations?

Simplifying legacy might have a longer term upside than achieving energy usage.

Vodafone already provides a private network, as a slice of its public network, to power distribution company UK Power Networks. That gave it insight into using the sorts of ML techniques that UKPN uses to predict and deliver demand. That prompts the thought that, with mobile operators increasingly concerned with how to source, deliver and use power flexibly and dynamically, whether we should see deeper synergies between power companies and telcos. In Italy, Enel has its own private network, structured as an MVNO with two national operators acting as host networks. 

Donà: “I think, for me, it is not far removed when we’re already seeing the collaboration we have with our utility companies. We have the smart meterin contract, and there’s very interesting stuff you can do with IoT, 5G, once you go and you start you start putting them togethe.

They inevitably converge – I talked with my counterparts in some of the utility companies and the challenge there is in the standards, because you have to introduce cross industry standards before you can completely interact. That’s why I’m such a big advocate for open, interoperable and intelligent methods. Because once you start opening the telecom standards at an interface level then you can interface with potentially adjacent industry verticals like gas and power.”

Donà floated the thought that this might be a strength of 6G, that it is defined not just as a telecoms standard but as a cross-industry standard.

“That would be fascinating if we could do that. There’s too much in silos right now. Everyone in every industry has got lots of problems and everyone’s talking about digital transformation. But how do you use the technology to transform? It needs to be an interoperable interface. That’s why I’ve talked in the past about network as a platform.

“You simplify first by removing the old, then you standardise. Once it’s standardised you can expose the inherent network functions that you’ve got there through an API. And then you can almost free yourself in trying to second guess the next killer application, because with that exposure something will come.”