How does the telecom industry tackle sustainability?

When we think of industries that play an important role in global sustainability efforts, telecommunications might not be the first that comes to mind. Maybe you think of oil and gas, the automotive industry, farming, etc. However, advancements in telecommunications have a huge impact on sustainability.  

In this article, we look at some of the ways the telecom industry tackles sustainability, and some of the issues it still faces.  

The positive impact of the telecom industry. 

Advancements in telecommunications have improved sustainability in a plethora of ways. Some of those benefits have included: 

  • Reduced travel emissions as a result of video conferencing, cloud collaboration, and other remote capabilities.  
  • Efficiency improvements brought on by developments like fiber optic networks.  
  • Tech that eliminates wasted materials, like cloud collaboration, eSignature, and so on.  

As telecom continues to advance, the sustainability possibilities also increase.  

However, there are still inefficiencies.  

While the telecom industry presents so much opportunity for positive change, it is not without its negatives. For example, telecommunications infrastructure consumes energy at high rates. Data centers, in particular, require a lot of electricity not only to power, but to keep cool.  

Likewise, in order for our telecommunications systems to exist the way they do, there is an environmental toll: 

  • The production of telecom equipment, from mining materials to manufacturing, involves resource-intensive processes.  
  • Electronic waste, when not recycled in a proper e-waste program, is an ever-growing issue in global landfills, exacerbated by the rapid advancement making old gadgets obsolete.  
  • Network expansion into remote or ecologically sensitive areas has been known to have a negative impact on local environments and wildlife. 

Recent concerns have brought this topic into the forefront.  

The environmental impact of telcos made headlines this past July when The Wall Street Journal published an investigative journalism exposé revealing that AT&T, Verizon, and other telecom companies have left a massive network across the U.S. of old cables covered in toxic lead. 

Most of these cables were laid between the late 1800s and 1960s, then simply never removed and left to degrade. The exposé found that “2,000 old telco cables has degraded over time and contaminated myriad locations in water, in the soil and from overhead lines. Many of these locations are in places where people live and work. Some of the locations are in schoolyards. According to its independent tests, some lead levels in sediment and soil measured 14.5 times the EPA threshold for areas where children play.” 

While the telcos responsible for this have all responded differently, the takeaway is clear. The infrastructure used by the telecom industry has the potential to change the environment around it, and not always for the better. Using safe and responsible materials, and keeping better track of outdated hardware, is critical. 

What are telcos doing to address sustainability? 

Many telecom companies are actively working to reduce their environmental footprint through energy-efficient technologies, renewable energy adoption, and responsible waste management. For example, the transition to 5G networks, which are more energy-efficient overall, is one of the gradual solutions to improving the telecommunications industries’ sustainability.  

Several of the world’s biggest telcos are on their way to reducing emissions significantly or achieving sustainability within the next few years. Verizon, for instance, is on track to reduce emissions by 53% by 2030.  

In conclusion… 

The telecommunications industry has both positive and negative environmental impacts. On the one hand, advancements have increased sustainability in all other walks of life. However, such large operations, networks, and infrastructure takes its toll as well.