Skip to main content

Sustainability and
the life of a
base station

6-minute read

Recently I found myself wondering about base stations; what happens during their lifetime, and how are we at Nokia minimizing their overall impact on the environment? With over 7 million BTS currently deployed around the world, base stations today consume more than 70% of the total energy used in mobile networks globally. 5G is also beginning to be deployed by many CSP’s all over the world, which very well could increase energy consumption further. But it’s not just the energy consumption of base stations that impact the environment, it’s the whole lifecycle - production, shipping, deployment, end of life - which needs to be considered as well. At Nokia, we have clear sustainability targets and are committed to a cleaner, more connected and sustainable world. Thus, it is becoming ever more vital that we minimize the environmental impact of base stations at every stage of the life cycle.

What are base stations?

Base stations connect our mobile phones to the telecoms network, allowing us to fulfil our ever-growing demand for the internet. They are often fixed to the masts you see on top of buildings or along the side of motorways and ‘talk’ to mobile phones within a coverage area (or cell) by transmitting and receiving radio signals.

The size of a cell will vary. In the countryside, one base station could serve a cell radius of several kilometers, whereas in a city, with many people trying to access network services at one time, more base stations will be deployed serving cells of a few hundred meters or less. The size of base stations also vary. Initially base stations were approximately the size of a small garden shed, but over the last 30 years they have decreased in size and today some ‘small cells’ are no larger than an iPad and weigh only a few kilograms.

Oulu factory: where base stations are born

More than 1,000 4G and 5G base stations are “born” every day inside the Nokia Oulu ‘factory of the future’, close to the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. At the facility, Nokia is powering its own sustainable transformation using 100% renewable energy sources and an industrial grade private wireless network. This network leverages Nokia’s own base station technology to power automation, data analytics and other advanced methods, such as digital twinning, to optimize production, maximize efficiency and minimize waste. Consequently the facility has been recognized by the World Economic Forum as an ”Advanced 4th Industrial Revolution Lighthouse” – which is pretty clever!

Clever thinking can also reduce the amount of raw materials needed to create base stations, which include plastics, glass, and ceramics, with metals such as aluminum, steel, brass, copper, and tin accounting for around 80% of the weight. This reduction in size and components leads to a reduction in weight, packaging and the space that the base station takes up so fewer vehicles are needed to transport them to customers with less fuel being consumed as a result.

Deployment in the field

Deployment of modern networks is performed in a much more sustainable way through digitalization of processes and procedures. At Nokia, we use digital collaboration platforms, workflow orchestration systems, digitalized interfaces and applications to significantly reduce the number of site visits needed for new base station site deployment and acceptance. By doing this we can cut deployment time by up to 50% and eliminate the use of paper.

Site surveys, installation, and acceptance testing are traditionally very manually intensive processes, requiring multiple visits by many engineers. Now either drones, or one person with a video collaboration-enabled smartphone can record relevant site details to create a digital site survey and site design report. Onsite security checks of the implementation plan, often involving several parties and site visits, are no longer needed, thereby avoiding human error. This also means fewer people travelling to sites, which, given the millions of sites that will be rolled out for 5G networks, can potentially deliver significant savings in both carbon emissions and costs.

Working life

Of course, base stations aren’t deployed and then left to run until they are taken out of the network. A base station spends its working life providing broadband connectivity to consumers and businesses, and unsurprisingly, 84% of greenhouse gas emissions created by a mobile network occur while its components are operational. During a typical lifespan of 5-10 years, a busy site could handle a Petabyte of data. This is enough to store 4,000 digital photos – every single day – for the rest of your life or watch your favorite movie 18,000 times, back-to-back.

All this activity means that sites need to be maintained, faulty parts need to be replaced and functionality and capacity upgrades are required to ensure service quality. Over time it is possible that so much of the original equipment will be swapped out that a base station will start to resemble “Trigger’s Broom”.

Luckily, there is plenty we can do to minimize the environmental impact of maintaining and upgrading base stations once they are in service. In today’s networks, many features can be controlled by software – meaning they can be switched on and off remotely – reducing the number of site visits required and in turn energy consumption by up to 30%. In addition, we can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance energy savings quite significantly by understanding the complex dependencies between overlapping coverage areas, ensuring there is no adverse impact on data speeds or customer experience. For example, by leveraging AI, parts of the network can be powered down automatically when they aren’t being used – just like we can teach our kids to switch off the TV when they’ve finished with it. Although many parents would suggest AI is much more successful!

We can also reduce the energy associated with powering base stations - most of which use the electricity grid. While replacing this with 100% solar energy is not usually economically viable, the addition of a single solar panel at each site could replace 5-10% of the electricity used and provide an acceptable payback. Diesel generators are used in locations where there is no reliable power supply, and in recent years solar energy has become a very competitive alternative. This is because the price of solar panels has decreased, and base station battery solutions have become more advanced, with the latest lithium batteries better than traditional lead options. Operators are also starting to source more of their energy from larger, centralized solar farms. In Spain for example, Orange recently announced an agreement with Iberdrola to buy renewable energy for at least 12 years.

Base stations are essentially big computers – and computers don’t work well when they get hot. So, to ensure equipment is kept at a stable operating temperature, service providers have to install costly air conditioning. In order to reduce energy and the expense associated with this type of cooling Nokia has introduced innovative ‘Liquid Cooling’, which uses liquid to cool the base station and removes the need for noisy fans and air conditioning, reducing electricity costs between 30-60 percent!

End of life

What happens when a base station gets too old to be useful anymore? Well they don’t get sent to live out their days on a farm but in some cases, they can be reused. At the start of my career, I worked on some older generation 2G base stations that were being refurbished. They had been removed from a network in central London because they didn’t have enough capacity anymore, but they still worked perfectly. Believe it or not, most of them ended being re-deployed in rural parts of Scotland.

At Nokia, of the products recovered in 2019, materials corresponding to 91.6% of the total mass of our products are recycled, approximately 8 percent is waste that is converted back into energy, and less than 1% ends up in specialized landfill. During 2019, Nokia asset recovery service recycled 4,000 metric tons of old telecommunications equipment and refurbished approximately 56,000 units.

5G and the circular economy

As we look to the future, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. New technology always brings new possibilities. Because of advances in the way they transmit and receive radio signals - we expect 5G base stations to be up to 100X more efficient in their use of energy.

Nokia has created ambitious environmental targets and actions to reduce the environmental impact of its operations and the impact of its customers’ operations. As such, we are focused on the ‘circular economy’ – that is increasing recycling and re-use of materials in the manufacture of new products – and closing the gap to minimize waste. For the planet, and for the humble base station, that can only be a good thing.

Andrew Burell

About Andrew Burrell

Andy is responsible for Nokia’s Digital Operations’ marketing.  After more than 25 years in the telecoms industry he remains fascinated by the possibilities of technology, in particular the potential of 5G and Artificial Intelligence to transform networks, operations and business.  He loves to use his various devices to keep up with social media, news, and above all, the football results. Finally realizing that the phone call from Arsenal FC was never going to come, he has given up playing and now prefers to watch his kids chase their own dreams from the side of the pitch.  

Tweet me @andyburrell or connect via http://linkedin.com/in/andrewburrell

Intrigued by what you’ve read?

Click to learn more from Nokia.