Prysmian takes part in Financial Times-ETNO TECH & POLITICS FORUM

During the panel discussion, I shared sustainability lessons in relation to building full fibre networks and discussed components, long term planning and investment choices. In my opinion, we need to complete the migration of the access networks from copper to full fibre first. Fibre isn’t just technologically superior to copper – it’s also a more sustainable solution.

Copper access networks require active equipment between the central office and the customer premises and therefore consume more energy. Full fibre access networks are passive, and therefore more sustainable. Fibre cables are also smaller than copper and require less space, ducts, and civil works. There’s also an important reduction in footprint because you can replace three central offices for copper with one for fiber.

Over the past 10 years, Europe has worked hard to deploy full fibre access networks but there is still work to be done to complete this. Based on current deployment plans and targets the goal of pan-European fibre should be achieved before 2030. When deciding to deploy a fibre network, you need to remember that the infrastructure should last 25 or 30 years. Therefore, several building blocks need to be considered:

  • Performance (essentially speed, latency, symmetry)
  • Robustness (no disruption for end users and minimal maintenance costs - even after years of mistreatment, temperature cycling, flooding…)
  • Future proofness (capacity to cope with the not yet known performance of the active equipment of the future)
  • Carbon footprint (minimized environmental impact during construction and in operations)

If the infrastructure owner neglects these criteria, the network may have to be refurbished a few years after being deployed - very bad in terms of sustainability. When selecting network components, the most sustainable option available on the market should be chosen. Fibre cable solutions like Prysmian Ecoslim, Sirocco HD and Sirocco XT - the most compact high fibre density cables available - enable network deployment with less materials, civil works, and transportation, lowering carbon footprint and Total Cost of Ownership. This type of innovation has a real effect on scope 1,2,3 emissions and that is reflected in reporting.

Growth in traffic data and AI

According to the latest forecasts, data traffic will grow by up to 30% YoY until 2030. So we have to ask ourselves if current networks are equipped for such incredible data traffic growth - especially considering the fact that these forecast have most likely not considered the full impact of AI.

Put simply, we can differentiate two main parts of a digital infrastructure network: edge and core. The edge of the network is the access to network, for fixed or mobile services. In this part, current plans to deploy full FTTH for fixed networks and FTTA for mobile access should allow the network to manage predicted traffic growth.

However, looking at the network core - Data Centres and interconnects - I foresee more constraints: a large part of the vast (AI) traffic will be generated and stored in the DC. AI needs huge amounts of data as well as truly vast computing power to work. New Data Centres designed with AI capabilities show an incredible increase in computing power and connectivity inside the DC and between DCs. This introduces vast energy consumption. As the number of users, devices and the volume of queries increases, this will grow exponentially. According to a recent Morgan Stanley study, a search query in ChatGPT costs seven to 20 times more than a search in Google. ChatGPT uses more computing resources and, therefore, more energy. And this is why, of course, you receive a more elaborate reply. Are we ready for a massive deployment of AI? Not in the short term.

The Twin Transition

We need an increasing amount of power supply that is not available today. What’s more, this should be from a renewable source, otherwise it will not be sustainable. In many developed countries, Data Centre energy consumption represents 4 - 5% of the total energy consumption. In countries like Ireland with a higher DC per capita ration, this even reaches more than 10%. Just imagine most developed countries moving from 5 to 10%? This is why we have started talking about the Twin Transition: the Digital Transition will not happen without the Green Energy Transition and vice versa. As we have seen, Digitalization and AI will require more green and renewable energy generation. At the same time, the smart and efficient deployment of the Green Transition requires digitalization.

Innovation is necessary to realising this. Investing in R&D will push the limits and provide innovative solutions for the Twin Transition. This is what we are trying to do in Prysmian. We also need to be more aware of the hidden cost of digital services, such as Social Networks. Every time someone posts on social media there’s a hidden cost because their post will be stored in one or more DCs, consuming energy indefinitely. I’d like to call for a kind of social responsibility: by all means post relevant information worth storing in a DC but be careful with sharing useless posts!

The FT-ETNO Tech & Politics Forum 2023 brought together eight CEOs, four European Commissioners, two Ivy League Professors, a Nobel Prize winner and other leading experts in Brussels in November 2023. CEOs, policymakers, investors, NGOs, civil society and thinkers discussed Europe's search for tech leadership and debated topics including digital ecosystems, sovereignty, security and infrastructure amid shifting global geopolitics.