How power challenges are evolving and the emerging role for towercos

Vertiv talks renewables, edge computing, small cells and the opportunities and challenges for neutral hosts

Jon Abbott Wim Timmermans Vertiv

Read this article to learn:

  • The power challenges presented by 5G rollout
  • How the economics of on-site renewables stack up in good grid markets
  • Factors driving towercos to get more involved in power
  • The new power challenges to overcome with edge computing
  • To what extent powering small cell networks is a priority issue

Vertiv are one of the biggest names in the critical digital infrastructure space, working with a host of different stakeholders globally on issues such as powering and cooling. In this interview TowerXchange speaks to Vertiv’s Jon Abbott and Wim Timmermans to discuss how power challenges are evolving in the European tower market, exploring the emerging role of renewables and how towercos are positioned to meet the changing requirements of the industry.

TowerXchange: Firstly, please can you introduce Vertiv and, in a nutshell, explain the key solutions that you provide to the telecoms space  

Wim Timmermans, Director Global Telecom Strategic Clients, Vertiv: Vertiv is defined as a global provider of critical digital infrastructure and continuity solutions. This means that we provide a portfolio of power, cooling and IT infrastructure systems and services that extends from the cloud to the edge, including communication networks as well as the data centre, commercial and industrial sectors. We are a global provider of passive infrastructure solutions for telecoms.

 

TowerXchange: In the European market, the increased power consumption that is expected as a result of 5G rollout and the associated boom in data usage presents a major concern to the telecoms industry. Whilst the manufacturers of antennae and other network equipment are working to develop more energy efficient solutions, in what ways does the industry need to evolve how sites are powered to also drive efficiencies?  

Jon Abbott, Technologies Director, Global Telecom Strategic Clients – EMEA, Vertiv: 5G requires a wide-scale reengineering of the way that power is supplied and managed. A 4G site can typically have around 8-14kW of power demand; with 5G we are starting to see requests from customers going up to 24kW. Whilst 5G is inherently more efficient per bit of data, there is no end to data appetite, and data growth isn’t going to increase linearly, it will be exponential. Whilst mobile network operators (MNOs) are planning to switch off legacy equipment and technology that has been around for 20-30 years, overall expectancy is that the energy consumption of sites is going to go up.

There are a number of actions and initiatives that need to be taken on both the active and the passive side to improve energy efficiency and reduce consumption. On the active side, technologies need to be made more efficient, and concepts and techniques such Self Organising Networks (SON) and machine-based learning sleep modes will help to minimise energy consumption. On the passive side, it is important to use high-efficiency rectifiers, improved ventilation and cooling as well as on-site renewables. All of these represent important tools to help minimise energy consumption and carbon footprint.

In addition, better site monitoring of power consumption also needs to be implemented. Most sites are still in the dark ages, with only very basic data on their condition and status being available to them. There is a huge amount of granular data available at site, that if captured, can be used to visualise performance and better understand the network’s behaviour towards energy consumption. Optimisation, especially dynamic optimisation, will require a significant increase in site intelligence.

Industry needs to shift from a mentality of short-term capex minimisation to a more holistic lifecycle approach. Site efficiency needs to be prioritised over short term capex gains. This is even more important when you are speaking about tackling carbon emissions. Operators are very keen on becoming more sustainable and we’re seeing various targets towards carbon neutrality being announced, with a focus on scope 2 emissions directly impacting towercos.

Energy saving actions telecoms

TowerXchange: As the power consumption of telecoms networks increases, so does the carbon footprint of the telecoms sector, placing operators and towercos under pressure to reduce or offset their emissions. What role can renewable solutions play in the European market? Do the economics stack up and which technologies are showing the most promise? 

Jon Abbott, Technologies Director, Global Telecom Strategic Clients – EMEA, Vertiv: Whilst on the whole, electricity grids in Europe are good today, pressure to move to more sustainable sources presents a potential risk to grid reliability with a greater degree of power fluctuations from renewables.

On-site renewables offer a solution for the telecom tower industry, but the challenge is space availability. Energy from solar is currently only 18-20% efficient and so a large amount of space is required to generate the necessary power, especially for much of northern Europe. Increased space requirements lead to increase ground lease costs and reduced space for tenants, thus hampering the economics of a site. As such, solar is unable to completely replace grid power, it can only help to contribute to meeting the site’s power demand. So, for access sites, in particular, solar may not be able to replace utility entirely, but it can reduce the demand on it and improve your carbon footprint.

With renewables, there are significant benefits from economies of scale. If you have a nice large site, with high power demand, for example, a large 100kW switching centre, you could build a sizeable rooftop solar plant. Going larger than this and you go into the realms of carbon accounting, for example, a telco can become an anchor investor in the building of a solar farm and then receive carbon credits for their investment.

 

TowerXchange: Historically, power at telecom towers in Europe has been managed by MNOs with each providing their own back-up power. With a general trend towards increased sharing and outsourcing of passive infrastructure, it would be a natural evolution for this to be managed by towercos or other neutral hosts. To what extent do you agree with this and to what might drive this trend further? 

Wim Timmermans, Director Global Telecom Strategic Clients, Vertiv: The towerco model is undergoing a period of evolution. Historically the towercos were a real estate play, focussed on selling co-locations and facilitating cost reduction. Now they’re evolving into adjacent services and assets, exploring active equipment and edge computing – areas that will lead to diversification in the traditional towerco customer base.

One can imagine those discussions with traditional, and non-traditional tenants, particularly in the edge data centre space will move from wanting just space to wanting space plus conditioned power. The energy on site will be multi-tenanted and towercos will need to measure and separate usage for each tenant. The way that power is managed on site will have to change, it is capex intensive and so a sharing approach makes a lot of sense.

 

TowerXchange: Longer term thinking proposes the location of edge datacentres at select towers, and already some towercos are starting to get involved in the provision of edge computing at other locations. How do tower owners need to be planning for this from an energy perspective now – both in terms of the design of sites and also in developing their technical know how? 

Jon Abbott, Technologies Director, Global Telecom Strategic Clients – EMEA, Vertiv: There are significant challenges in blending together telco and IT equipment by locating edge data centres at cell sites. The standard building blocks that data centres are built on are COTS servers – these are designed to be built at scale and housed in strictly controlled environments. Such assets have been controlled and managed by IT people, not the telco sector. When you talk about co-locating edge computing at the cell site, you talk about wanting to take that same equipment – equipment that is normally housed in a secure, temperature-controlled environment – and move it to, for example, a rooftop. That location then needs to be managed in the same way that you would treat a data centre; this changes the infrastructure requirements from an engineering perspective.

Additionally, deploying an edge data centre will add around 30kW of power demand as a minimum, and in many locations, you just don’t have the size grid connection to accommodate this. In the US, we’re seeing edge data centres going up to 500kW, but in Europe there just isn’t the space or the energy capability to provide this. The way around this in Europe is to look at different hardware, equipment that is stable up to 50°C, rather than equipment that needs to be kept below 30°C. There will be a capex penalty to enable this, but when you look at the overall lifecycle cost it makes sense. There are still few commonalities in the Edge ecosystem, so passive infrastructure selection in terms of what to manage and how to manage it is still very much evolving.

 

TowerXchange: The rollout of small cells in Europe has been slower than originally forecast but neutral hosts such as towercos are seeing a role for themselves in future rollout plans. Can you share some of the challenges ahead from a power provision perspective and how Vertiv can aid in addressing these challenges 

Wim Timmermans, Director Global Telecom Strategic Clients, Vertiv: When discussing small cells, it is important to define what it is that you mean by a small cell. For us, that is anything under 2kW. In China, where there has been a high number of small cells deployed, you find that only about 20% have back up power. Whilst the small cells fulfil a purpose due to the proximity to customers, should power to them be lost, the signal will be picked up by the macro network – failure of a small cell is not deemed an infringement on their service provision. Adding resilience to each and every site would add a lot of cost. At the moment, power supply and resilience of small cells is not front of mind to MNOs, but as network densification increases and the cumulative power demand of these small cells increases in parallel, one can assume more attention will turn to the issue.

 

For those interested in learning more about the challenges facing today’s telco’s 5G deployments, and examine best practices aimed at mitigating increasing energy consumption, emissions and costs download Vertiv’s research report “Why Energy Management is Critical to 5G Success

 

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