Just when I thought the trend toward smaller, more efficient mobile computing was taking us in a greener direction, a recent study by the Center for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications (CEET) finds, in fact, we're creating a monster. To date, attention to the rapidly expanding energy consumption and concomitant carbon emissions of the Internet has been focused on data centers. A New York Times series targeted the data centers of major Cloud players such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple to reveal the power hungry and polluting nature of the Internet - 2% of the world's energy and growing. Greenpeace in its "How Dirty is Your Data" and "How Clean is Your Cloud" reports also exposed the energy- and carbon-intensiveness of data centers. To their credit, the major Cloud players, including Akamai, have responded and are leading the way to unprecedented efficiency, and even powering with renewables.
But as we've been busy scrutinizing data centers, a new power-intensive infrastructure component is emerging: wireless. Traditionally, we accessed the Internet from PC's tethered to Ethernet cables, hard-wired into the Cloud. Most of our content and applications lived on our computers or on company servers. Now, thanks to advancements in ubiquitous wireless technology and smart, mobile clients, we've been unleashed, free to roam, to access our videos, music, documents and applications anytime, anywhere. Smart phones and tablets have given us compute power at a fraction of the energy and clunkiness of PC's. This evolution has brought us unprecedented convenience and flexibility.
Now we come to find that all this freedom and convenience has come at an energy and environmental cost according to the CEET study, The Power of Wireless Cloud. Most surprising and concerning is that by 2015 wireless infrastructure, including technologies such as WiFi and 4G LTE, will account for 90% of the total energy consumption of the wireless cloud, while data centers supporting mobile users and their Internet activities will represent only 9%. Energy consumption of the wireless cloud will grow 460% from 9.2 TWh in 2012 to 43 TWh in 2015, resulting in a 24-megatonne increase in CO2 emissions, the equivalent of adding 4.9 million cars to the roads.
Source: The Power of Wireless Cloud, Centre for Energy Efficient Telecommunications, Bells Labs and University of Melbourne
And that might be a lowball estimate. A 2011 study (G. Auer, Oct. 2011) cited by CEET estimates the contribution of just the 4G LTE infrastructure at 80 TWh. Akamai's most recent State of the Internet report supports this prediction of rapid growth in energy consumption indicating that mobile (2-4G only) web traffic has been doubling year over year since 2007.
Source: Akamai State of the Internet Q1 2013 report. Traffic data does not include Wi-Fi, DVB-H and Mobile WiMax).
While the wireless cloud is only a small fraction of the Internet's total estimated 260 TWh of energy consumption today, we can only expect the transition to an untethered world to continue. The question is will the energy consumption of the wireless infrastructure dominate the total as predicted? Even at something substantially less than domination, that's still a lot of energy. And, like power-hungry data centers, unless that energy comes from renewable sources, it will be contributing to ever increasing greenhouse gas emissions which we cannot afford at any level of convenience and flexibility.
But there are also some things we can do in the meantime. Helping to make the transmission of wireless traffic more efficient will help. For example, a feature of Akamai's Aqua Ion offering is support for "suppressed header for uplink traffic reduction" (SHUTR), developed by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. This HTTP protocol extension reduces the size of HTTP headers sent by mobile phones which in addition to improving browsing speeds reduces mobile data traffic. It's definitely a start.
Nicole Peill-Moelter is Akamai's Director of Environmental Sustainability