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When will Africa see the eco benefits of 5G?

September 22, 2020

Expanding fast, reliable internet access across Africa will bring advantages for society, business and the climate. But with operators mainly focused on profit, environmental solutions often take a back seat to cost.

Three Kenyan women look at the screen of a mobile phone held by the woman in the middle
Image: Imago Images/photothek/T. Imo

From money transfers and instant weather updates for farmers to apps that help reduce waste, save water or find elusive parking spots — mobile internet use has exploded throughout Africa over the past decade. Mobile broadband connections there are expected to surpass 1.08 billion by 2024, according to industry data.

"Generally, across the continent, mobile devices remain the primary avenue for people to access the internet in place of laptops and similar digital devices," said Juliet Nanfuka of the group Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), which works to support development and reduce poverty through communication technologies.

The rapid growth of mobile internet is expected to continue, with the World Bank aiming to achieve universal "affordable and good quality broadband access" in Africa by 2030. That would add nearly 1.1 billion new users to the continent's network between now and the end of the decade, at a cost of roughly $109 billion (€ 92.5 billion) for 4G service or equivalent. 

People access free Wi-Fi on their mobile phones at a public spot in Mutare, Zimbabwe
Smartphone users make the most of a Wi-Fi hotspot in Zimbabwe, one of the world's most expensive places when it comes to mobile dataImage: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/picture-alliance

To avoid the added burden of CO2 emissions resulting from this tremendous expansion, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector will have to invest in climate-friendly solutions for its new data centers and transmission networks. 

Digital tech's carbon footprint is growing 

Global greenhouse gas emissions caused by the ICT sector are expected to rise to 900 million tons by 2030 — last year, that figure was already at 800 million tons.

If that projection holds true, the industry's climate footprint would increase to roughly 2% of worldwide emissions by the end of the decade, noted a 2019 report by the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), which focuses on how digital tech can help society and the environment. 

That might not seem like much — though it's about the same as the yearly contribution by the global aviation business — but if left unchecked it could balloon to around 14% by 2040, according to projections by the European Commission. 

Read moreIs Africa ready for 5G?

West Africa's waste collection app

Still, successful efforts to green the ICT sector would do more than just cut those emissions. Knock-on effects across the continent could end up boosting the development of renewable energy and drive sustainable growth in sectors like business and agriculture.

5G can help the climate

5G, the latest generation of wireless mobile technology said to be 100 times faster than the current standard, began rolling out in Europe, Southeast Asia, and North America in early 2019.

With wireless internet available everywhere — using much less energy to transmit data — more people will be able to work remotely and hook up countless energy-saving devices and sensors that can, for example, detect pollution, monitor and regulate water use and reduce traffic congestion.

But it will be some time before this climate-friendly tech is widespread in Africa; more than 50% of the continent's network coverage is currently served by 3G or lower.

An infographic showing mobile coverage by type of network

Switching from 3G to curb emissions

Preliminary research released on September 10 by Germany's Federal Environment Agency (UBA) showed that data transmission over 3G mobile networks — still one of the most widely used technologies for internet-connected devices around the world — generates 90 grams of CO2 per hour of high-definition video streaming per device, factoring in the energy used by the data center and transmission. That's equivalent to powering a 100-watt light bulb or a desktop computer for around three hours, depending on the model.

The ongoing 5G shift is expected to reduce that environmental toll by emitting only about 5 grams of CO2 per hour.

But the UBA research found that fixed broadband services delivered through cables were still the best when it came to emissions, with fiber-optic connections producing only 2 grams of CO2 per hour. Copper cables, which have been used in circuitry and wiring for decades and are still widespread today, are responsible for around 4 grams of CO2 per hour.

Environmental costs vs. universal access

Presenting the UBA data, German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze emphasized that climate-friendly ICT networks were possible, even with the expected increase in data streaming in the coming years, "if you do it right and choose the right method for data transmission." 

Noting the low climate cost of fiber-optic connections, Schulze suggested that public Wi-Fi hot spots could be a better alternative to mobile streaming.

But while that may be a good option for Europe and other regions with well-established broadband networks, the cost of fiber-optic networks can be prohibitive in certain regions of Africa. Free, reliable public access to the internet also remains rare across the continent, limited to urban centers in a handful of countries.

A group of young Muslim girls take a selfie picture with a mobile phone in Lagos
Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the world's widest mobile gender gaps, with only 35% of adult women using mobile internet according to the GSMAImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Utomi Ekpei

In Uganda, the government has been providing free Wi-Fi hot spots at nearly 300 locations through a service called MYUG since 2017. But, as Juliet Nanfuka of CIPESA pointed out, access can be slow and inadequate — the service is primarily found in and around the capital, Kampala, and limited to weekends from Saturdays at 3 p.m., and evenings and pre-dawn hours on weekdays.

"The move was welcomed, but it needed a bit more consultation with different actors in civil society," said Nanfuka, pointing out that the locations and time restrictions prevented many people — students, children, women — from accessing the networks.

Many regions 'don't have 24/7 reliable power'

Governments in other countries — such as Botswana, Mozambique and Ghana — have also set up similar services with Universal Access Service Funds, which use mandatory contributions from telecommunications firms and reinvest them back into the sector to expand the network and reach underserved areas.

But they can run into issues with funding and long-term viability, Eleanor Sarpong, deputy director with the Alliance for Affordable Internet, told DW. 

"There needs to be a conversation about sustainability, and also the issue of power," she said. "The cost of power can also be quite prohibitive, especially in regions of Africa where you don't have 24/7 reliable power."

An infographic showing mobile phone use in Africa

Sarpong said to ensure across-the-board access — factoring in the cost of infrastructure, data and the devices used to access that data — governments need to get involved with targeted policies.

"If you really want to make universal access [for] everybody — whether they are rich or poor, whether they are in urban or rural areas — then you have to create either incentives or have a regulation that mandates that private sector players [expand] into certain areas, even if they don't find it profitable," she said.

Green ICT solutions exist, but cost remains a factor

Facing these challenges, the issue of climate footprint can often take a back seat.

"The environmental impact of the telecommunications sector is often neglected, despite its enormous importance," said Samuel Woodhams, a digital rights researcher at the London-based internet research firm Top10VPN. "While increasing connectivity is vitally important, environmental considerations should also be carefully considered."

Both Sarpong and Nanfuka said initiatives like infrastructure sharing, where operators pool resources such as generators or cable trenches to avoid doubling up, can help limit the environmental impact. However, this route is generally chosen for financial rather than eco-friendly reasons.

Sarpong said that even when green solutions like solar power or low-cost renewable batteries are available, the cost can be prohibitive for operators. 

"One of the big hurdles that we have to face is the import duties on some of these sustainable, greener solutions," she said, pointing out that customs duties can be so high that network operators simply default to the standard, low-cost option, sidestepping environmental concerns. "Policy and regulation are going to play a very big role … with the sustainability issue."

An earlier version of this article stated that the ICT sector produced 800 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions last year, with that amount expected to rise to 900 metric tons by 2030. The article has been corrected to reflect that the estimates were 800 million tons and 900 million tons respectively.   

Martin Kuebler Senior editor and reporter living in Brussels, with a focus on environmental issues