A lot has been said – and is being said – on this topic, but there seems to be need for revisiting the situation in so far as it pertains to the telecommunication sector. Before addressing the contextual positioning of the sector – the stakeholders of which are being advised to earn carbon credits - it might be pertinent to look at the status of ‘carbon’ in our atmosphere which could affect the earth’s climate.
It is believed that the earth is warming up - mainly due to increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. In fact, any inference based on data for a period of a few decades or even of a few centuries may be misleading in the context of earth with a history of more than 4500 million years.
The climate has been varying due to several factors. Variation in the tilt of earth's axis of rotation, wobbling, changes in the geometry of the earth rotation and eccentricity of its orbit around the sun plus solar activity itself lead to changes in the amount of solar radiation. One has also to consider changes in location of continents and their uplift as well as oceanic currents which also affect earth's climate.
Let us see how significant is the contribution of carbon dioxide.
About 78 per cent of air is composed of Nitrogen and about 21 per cent Oxygen. All other gases make up the remaining one per cent. The carbon-dioxide content in air has been estimated at about 0.038 per cent. Bulk of this comes from decay of organic matter, volcanic activity, etc. Man's contribution via fossil fuels, deforestation etc. is estimated to be only about five per cent of the 0.038 per cent which appears to be insignificant and moreover, the role of CO2 itself in climate change is limited. However of late, the carbon factor is being reckoned as an important factor even though the fact is that it constitutes a minor part of the totality. And to top the situation, a system of carbon credits has been put in place by government authorities, towards which the telecommunication sector is required to contribute its efforts.
This whole exercise tends to divert the attention of stakeholders like manufacturers, government, service operators and other associated parties towards trying to reduce the carbon footprint and to earn carbon credits. As a matter of fact, the effort should be directed towards establishing a telecom network suited to India - indigenous design - and not towards rectifying the shortcomings and requirements of the model suited to the traffic and climatic conditions of the Western world which have been installed in the telecom network and are operating in India. As a matter of fact, the service-licensees have ‘retrofitted’ the system requirements at considerable cost to themselves and the citizen.
In so far as the rural areas of the country are concerned, which constitute over 80% of the country’s geographical area, it is not difficult to work out an India-specific concept of indigenous design, easy to implement, workable in all climatic conditions without artificial heating or cooling and, at the same time, extend broadband telecom services and facilities to the inhabitants of widely disparate and geographically dispersed pockets which exist in every State of our country.
Taking the power-supply issue first, it is feasible to arrange that electrical energy be made available to each village (or house-cluster) in an off-grid fashion and not be dependent on electricity transmission line serving a whole State or revenue-district which involves distance-dependent power losses and voltage fluctuation issues, and carries considerable unreliability. Whereas 24X7 power supply is needed for telecom, the field situation is that electricity grid supply is available only for a few hours to villages.
For such locations, the advanced-technology solid-state storage batteries, which can be charged by solar or wind energy, would ensure round-the-clock workability of the telecom system. Solar energy and wind energy based systems are already operational in several locations and it should be possible to carve out smaller local models suited for single village or house-cluster where the requirement would be less than a kilowatt in a stand-alone fashion, requiring short lengths of inexpensive, commonly used wire for interconnection.
Telecom equipment deploying light-weight technologies have been available for some time, which can be mounted on a light-weight PVC pole of about 20-30 feet height to provide coverage in a 2-3 km radius. Government specifications are available and a couple of Organisations have successfully demonstrated its feasibility. The light-weight equipment, utilising the full benefits of nano technology, mounted on the pole would be connected through the country’s extensive wireless and optic-fibre mediums to the country’s network and can provide global broadband connectivity. Broadband linkages are essential in order to extend benefits like agri-information, e-education, e-governance, e-health etc. etc. If a State-Government adopts this project, final design touches can be imparted to the equipment.
Thereafter, circumstances and future development of technologies being favourable, the concept could be adopted for all rural areas, and even semi-urban areas of the Country. This is especially relevant to the presently prevailing situation wherein mobile telecom networks in India gulp down 2 bn litres of diesel every year to run and back-up diesel generators ! The cost would work out to less than a quarter of conventional GSM stations, making the system profitable even in rural areas with very low densities and low subscriber revenue. The equipment would naturally be easy also for transportation and would require near-zero maintenance. Moreover, it can be assembled, activated and operated, with minimal training, by non-engineers.
An epilogue is necessary. Efforts on these lines would, no doubt, result in considerable carbon credits. However another factor, which has perhaps remained unnoticed, deserves notice. It is axiomatic that telecom obviates the need for extensive travel – and an essential feature of travel results in carbon in some form or the other.
Hence carbon saving is inherent in all variations of telecommunication. No calculations or estimates are available to quantify the carbon savings achieved with the advent of telecom since its arrival in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but there is no denying the fact that these are obviously enormous. Replacing towers by poles alluded to earlier would result in saving of steel and diesel. Naturally, the telecom sector does not deserve to be called upon to earn carbon credits. In fact savings in this sector should be passed on to the overall carbon-saving accounts of the Nation.
(The writer is Chairman, Infocom Think Tank)