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5G towers are consuming a lot of energy, so China Unicom is putting some of them to sleep overnight

China Unicom decided to put some 5G base stations to sleep between 9pm and 9am, prompting concern from users.

Chinese teenager with cell phone near Chinese lanterns. Source: Tuchong. Chinese teenager with cell phone near Chinese lanterns. Source: Tuchong.

When people talk about 5G, they’re often talking about the enormous boost in speed you’ll get from using the new mobile network technology. What many people don’t realize, though, is that it’s also expending a lot more energy for Chinese telecom companies.

At the beginning of August, a China Unicom branch announced that it would put some of its ZTE 5G base stations to sleep between 9pm and 9am to reduce electricity costs in the city of Luoyang.

A recent white paper from telecom equipment maker Huawei illustrates the problem: 5G base stations use up to three-and-a-half times more energy than 4G infrastructure. Part of the problem is that this new generation of mobile connectivity requires more densely placed base stations.

So as China has been rapidly rolling out new 5G base stations, reaching 410,000 nationwide in June, some cities are putting the ones they have to sleep to save energy because there aren’t enough users yet.

But Unicom, one of the country’s three state-owned telecom companies, is trying to assure users that they aren’t likely to see any change in service. “There’s no need to make a fuss,” said China Unicom CEO Wang Xiaochu.

“Shutting down base stations is not a manual shutdown, but an automatic adjustment made at a certain time, which has no impact on consumers and is good for investors,” Wang said, according to local media reports.

Wang’s comments came after news of the base station hibernation had some people questioning whether it was worth it to pay for 5G subscriptions if the stations won’t be accessible at certain hours. Unicom maintains that it isn’t a problem because hibernation schedules change according to need.

Just idling…

Li Fuchang, deputy director of the wireless networks research department at China Unicom’s Network Technology Research Institute, said that the hibernation function of the active array units (AAU) turns off the power supply when a base station is idle. This happens when there are no 5G users connected.

By adjusting the hibernation according to real-time data, operators can significantly reduce electricity and maintenance costs, Li recently told Science and Technology Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.

“When the base station is normally enabled, compared with the peak period, the energy consumption of the base station in the latter half of the night is not much reduced,” he said “However, most of the energy consumption is ‘ineffective energy consumption’.”

China first launched what it called the world’s largest 5G network at the end of last year with subsidized plans. The technology is meant to herald the arrival of ultra-fast wireless broadband internet, but availability remains limited.

Environmental impact

As 5G connectivity spreads, some researchers argue that the technology’s environmental impact, which includes energy and waste problems, is being overlooked.

Thanks to its wide roll-out, China is one of the first countries that will have to tackle this issue. But eventually the problem will be global.

Telecommunications equipment giant Ericsson warned in a report published in March that the communications technology industry will need to lower total mobile network energy consumption while facing massive traffic growth. Energy-saving software, replacing old equipment and using artificial intelligence can help achieve this, according to the report.

But operators will also have to change how they did business in the past.

“Energy consumption is set to increase dramatically if 5G is deployed in the same way as 3G and 4G were,” Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden said in the report.

This article was originally published by Abacus News.