Is 5G more environmentally-friendly than WiFi ?
Wireless communication technologies have revolutionized our way of accessing the Internet. Their widespread adoption has led to an explosion in our usage: streaming, video games... with significant environmental consequences. Following the deployment of 5G, is it better to use mobile data or opt for WiFi? Here are some answers...
Increasing Demand on Mobile Networks
The demand for mobile data is constantly growing, as evidenced by these now widely popular uses:
- Watching a video or a movie online.
- Listening to music.
- Downloading video games.
- Browsing an endless stream of news composed of photos, emojis...
These activities increase the energy consumption required to power the infrastructure that supports 4G. Among other things:
Cables and Fiber Optics
Where our content is stored... There are 62 million servers counted worldwide.
Their construction, as well as their maintenance and operation, generate significant energy consumption and considerable greenhouse gas emissions. According to an analysis by ARCEP (January 2022), 4 to 13% of the environmental impact of digital technology in France comes from networks, 4 to 20% from data centers, and the rest is generated by the terminals we use: smartphones, TVs, computers... considering their manufacturing and usage.
Anticipating the imminent saturation of the 4G network in densely populated areas, the telecommunications industry has developed 5G. To operate, this faster and more scalable technology requires new infrastructures that are currently being implemented.
According to ARCEP, the use of 5G would be 10 times less energy-intensive than 4G and emit 8 times fewer greenhouse gases. This decrease in impact would be effective as early as 2023, and at best by 2028.
However, this measurement only takes into account the use of the antenna, without considering its lifecycle (manufacturing, end of life...) or the rebound effect generated by 5G.
(The notion of rebound effect will be detailed later in this article).
Ever-Increasing Quotas of Mobile Data in Our Plans
With a 4G network soon to be saturated, it would be better to opt for a more moderate use of our mobile data by limiting our energy-intensive activities... but that requires a real effort, contrary to the strategy implemented by mobile phone operators.
Indeed, the quotas of mobile data offered in plans are increasingly high, encouraging users to consume more data, thus contributing to the increase in environmental pressure.
As customers, we can contest and question our providers about the ecological impacts of their actions.
New operators like TéléCoop, the first transparent and ecological telecom cooperative in France, now offer alternative plans where data sobriety is encouraged. You only pay for what you consume.
In 2022, the average consumption of a French mobile data user was estimated at 10 GB per month.
When the Deployment of 5G Accelerates the Obsolescence of Smartphones
The transition to 5G also leads to the premature obsolescence of older smartphones. Indeed, most of the time, these devices are not equipped with antennas compatible with 5G. Many devices are therefore at risk of being prematurely discarded.
For those who would like to resist this new mobile network, the arrival of 5G also signals the end of two other networks: 2G and 3G. Orange announced in March 2022 that there would be no more maintenance on its 2G network from 2025 and 2028 for 3G. All phones not equipped to receive 4G or 5G, often the oldest ones, unfortunately will no longer be able to receive calls, SMS, or mobile data from these dates.
In 2021, it was estimated that 110 million phones were "sleeping" in French drawers... Yet two-thirds were still functional.
How to Avoid the Rebound Effect of 5G?
The rebound effect occurs when the increased efficiency of a technology, such as 5G, encourages users to use it more. This is problematic because even a more virtuous technology, with a lower environmental impact, risks being destructive if used en masse (even more so than before!)
5G allows for faster downloading of data, videos... and access to information in record time. It also offers us the possibility to send more requests. This, in turn, requires more energy from the infrastructure.
Companies and developers also make less effort to reduce the flow of data sent. This can be observed by comparing lightweight websites from the 80s to those of today. This is explained in part by the fact that, at the time, data transmission took much more time.
With the massive deployment of connected devices, this same saturation phenomenon should recur shortly with 5G. The already contemplated 6G will then have to develop to "remedy" this. This 6G will have to meet the uses of 2030: telemedicine, robotics, holograms, virtual worlds and metaverses, augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, all while reducing the energy-intensive nature of these new practices and this new network.
What (Effective) Alternatives to Mobile Data?
Fixed Networks vs. Mobile Networks: What are their respective environmental impacts?
There are two types of networks:
- Fixed networks (xDSL and FFTx) that transport data via cables.
- Mobile networks (2G / 3G / 4G / 5G) composed of relay antennas distributed over the territory, which transmit information in the form of radio waves.
The environmental impact of fixed networks is mainly due to their infrastructure (installation, construction, and activation). In France, there are 1.1 million kilometers of linear road dedicated to fixed networks. The impact of this infrastructure is considered to be 1 kg of CO2 per subscriber per year.
For mobile networks, the environmental impact depends mainly on usage and less on infrastructure. In France, there are approximately 50,000 antennas, resulting in an impact of 0.3 kg of CO2 per subscriber per year... which is 3 times less than the infrastructure of fixed networks.
But at an equal volume of data, the use of 4G requires about 50 kWh of electricity compared to 5 kWh for a fiber connection, which is 10 times more.
At first glance, fixed networks are more impactful than mobile networks: they represent between 75% and 90% of the total impact of all networks combined (ARCEP, 01/2022). They require more energy and equipment in use, due to the boxes used by users. But their environmental impact per consumed gigabyte is lower than that of mobile networks, with nearly 3 times less impact for all studied environmental indicators.
Mobile Networks (4G)
Fixed Networks (Wi-Fi)
Almost 7 times more for 4G. (Source ADEME/ARCEP)
To reduce its environmental impact, it is advisable to prefer a fixed network to access online services.
Wi-Fi: Your Smartphone Battery Thanks You
We can also realize this difference in energy consumption by monitoring the level of our smartphone battery. It will discharge much more slowly when using Wi-Fi rather than 4G, especially if we are near the captured network.
In general, the stability of the Wi-Fi connection saves energy because the device does not need to consume as much energy to maintain the connection.
Wi-Fi also has faster data transfer speeds than 4G: data is downloaded more quickly and requires less energy.
AGEC Law: More Transparency on the Ecological Impact of Your Internet Connection
Since 2022, the Anti-Waste Law for a Circular Economy (AGEC) also allows more transparency. It obliges operators of fixed and mobile networks to indicate the EqCO₂ cost associated with a user's consumption. This calculation takes into account the lifecycle of infrastructure and the internet box but not the terminal used by the user or data centers.
Here are the two metrics advanced by the AGEC law as a reference for billing:
- 50 gEqCO₂ / GB for mobile networks
- 18 gEqCO₂ / GB for fixed networks
The carbon impact of 4G is therefore 2.7 times higher than a connection with an internet box.
Wi-Fi Network: Security, Savings, Comfort, and Lower Environmental Impact
Today, whether at home or at work, it is possible to easily access a Wi-Fi or wired connection.
Secure and private Wi-Fi networks (such as at home or work) are generally safer than 4G connections, as they can be configured with advanced security protocols.
Using Wi-Fi rather than 4G can save you extra costs at the end of the month on your bill, caused by exceeding granted quotas or excessive use of 4G abroad...
However, be cautious with unsecured (public) Wi-Fi networks that can be spied on or hijacked for malicious use. In these cases, it is recommended to use a VPN (virtual private network) that allows for the secure and anonymous transmission of data.
Once connection elements are saved (Wi-Fi keys/passwords), terminals (phone or computer) automatically connect to the known fixed network. This is very practical, so it would be a shame to miss out on it.
An interesting alternative for connecting is therefore to opt for fixed networks whenever possible, via Wi-Fi or an Ethernet cable: solutions that are more energy-efficient. A habit to adopt to contribute to reducing your environmental footprint while meeting our connectivity needs.
- Arcep - Let's Talk About 5G
- Arcep - Environmental footprint of digital technology in France
- Arcep - Comparative study: energy consumption of a 4G vs. 5G deployment
- Ericsson Mobility Report: over half a billion 5G subscriptions by the end of 2021
- APC Climat - Wired network and mobile data do not have the same carbon impact!
- What is the impact of the network on digital services?
[Cover Photo: Alina Grubnyak]