When Talking AI, 5G and the Edge … Don’t Forget the Planet

At this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, there was no shortage of discussion around the use of artificial intelligence tech in telecom networks, and broad agreement that AI is a major driver of ushering in the era of edge computing. Edge computing brings data processing closer to the user and device – such as autonomous vehicles, home security, or a smart phone.

In parallel with the increasing adoption of edge computing and AI in telecom networks, major tech companies are building data centers in record numbers. While there is no dispute about the need for data centers, they come at an environmental cost as they consume significant amounts of water and energy.

During a panel discussion at MWC, Jillian Kaplan, Dell’s head of global 5G, connected the dots between edge and AI adoption and environmental considerations, highlighting one of the often-overlooked potential benefits of cloud transformation. As Kaplan explained, edge computing is an energy saver.

“I think where we are, it has to stay top of mind, and these edge and AI capabilities are going to help us keep our equipment extremely energy efficient, which we have to do with massive amounts of data coming in,” Kaplan said. The savings come from lower latency, lower energy costs and improved privacy and security as data gets processed closer to the devices and users.

Recent reports have highlighted the significant environmental impacts of data centers.  Google consumed 5.6 billion gallons of water in 2022 – the equivalent of 37 golf courses, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. That same year, Meta reported using 697 million gallons of water. The proliferation and new development of data centers spans the tech industry, consuming vast amounts of water on an annualized basis.

Drilling down to put this in a local perspective, for just one data center that Google was developing in Arizona in 2019, it received a guarantee of four million gallons of water per day.

To be sure, major tech companies are committed to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles, and their reporting on water usage reflects this. However, they are also developing ways to reduce consumption, such as air-cooled technologies and water replenishment, which Google had committed to do once that particular center in Arizona was brought into service. Given the impact of data centers on water supply, jurisdictions like Arizona that are water-stressed may be hesitant to approve new data centers in the future given the impacts to local water supplies.

As telecom companies map out their long-term network strategies and as they balance a host of technical and resource considerations, Kaplan delivered a timely reminder that ESG impacts need to be part of the discussion.