Bell Labs, the research arm of telecom giant Alcatel-Lucent, announced a "bold and daring" target today of overhauling the Internet and other communications networks so they are 1,000 times more energy efficient within five years.
The amount of energy consumed by networks equates to 300 millions tons of plant-warming gases each year, about the same as 50 million automobiles.
If Bell Labs and its new "Green Touch" consortium of partners can spur the technologies to hit that target, the Internet could run for three years on the same amount of energy it now devours in a day.
The 15 founding members of the consortium come from industry, universities, science labs and NGOs. They include AT&T, China Mobile, Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology and MIT’s Research Laboratory for Electronic.
Bell Labs called the announcement an "open invitation" to all members of the global information and communication technology (ICT) sector to join. Addressing the question of intellectual property rights, which has long dogged international technology transfer, Alcatel-Lucent CEO Ben Verwaayen said "the idea" is for intellectual property "to be shared" under Green Touch. "It’s an open environment within the consortium to build on each other’s successes."
Recently, the industry lost its battle to have ICT included in the ‘Copenhagen Accord’ that came out of the two-week talks in December. Advocates believe that getting mention of ICT into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) text would unleash dollars and innovation.
Making no mention of failed global climate policy, Bell Labs insisted Green Touch would deliver a radical re-engineering of global networks by 2015.
This will be "very, very different from the current network," said Gee Rittenhouse, head of Research Bell Labs. Today’s system is "optimized around performance" and "simplicity of operation," not saving watts.
There is precedent for such a big shift, said Bell Labs President Jeong Kim.
Kim equated Green Touch with a similar Bell Labs research effort in 1951, which led to the birth of the touch-tone telephone and 90 other phone features. The results "were staggering," he said. All of the inventions were eventually deployed, including caller ID, voice mail and the mobile phone — in other words, everything that is part of today’s communication technologies except for Internet and video, Kim added.
"Will [Green Touch] be a game changer? The answer is yes," Verwaayen said.
But not without money. When asked specifically how much Green Touch will cost and where the dollars will come from, Verwaayen dodged the question, saying only that it could cost "tens of millions of whatever currency you can think of" and Alcatel-Lucent would be "happy" to spend its "fair share of that."
"Let me be clear, on behalf of the Alcatel-Lucent shareholders, this is a great investment," Verwaayen said. "In five years time, we’ll have products that are affordable."
Bell Labs has engaged governments, which are expected to fork over some of the millions.
In an endorsement of Green Touch, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said:
"Truly global challenges have always been best addressed by bringing together the brightest minds in an unconstrained, creative environment. This was what we used when putting a man on the moon and is the same approach we need to implement to address the global climate crisis. The Green Touch initiative is an example of such a response."
ICT Carbon Cure
The ICT sector’s carbon footprint is growing because of the explosion of Internet, Rittenhouse said.
In total, ICT currently contributes about 2 percent of global warming emissions. But it is seen as a critical element in the fight against climate change.
"Put simply, ICT is the single most powerful tool humankind has at its disposal to avoid potential climate catastrophe," said Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the lead telecom arm of the UN.
Research supports this. Greening ITC would cut global greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent by 2020, according to a report by industry group McKinsey for the Global eSustainability Initiative and the Climate Group, a UK-based NGO.
Many scientists accept that by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions must shrink by at least 80 percent to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming. To get there, advocacy groups say emissions would need to peak between 2013 and 2017.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) says over 60 percent of the climate solution must come from energy efficiency technologies alone.
ICTs will not only correct the energy inefficiencies of the Internet but also those of the world’s antiquated electrical grids, energy-sucking buildings and data centers, among other big areas, experts say.
With coordinated global action, greening global IT could also improve people’s lives, especially in the developing world, "by bringing the benefits of the information society to them," said Malcolm Johnson, director of the Telecommunication Standardization Bureau at ITU. The technologies could bridge the rich-poor digital divide and help poor nations slash their carbon footprints at the same time, he added.