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