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Sustainability in Telecom, India

Dipti Bhatia
7 Dec 2022

Regulations catalyze Indian telecom industry’s move to sustainable initiatives

Sustainability is becoming a strategic goal for most industries globally, and India’s telecom industry needs to catch up.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is the major driving force behind telecom operators implementing Sustainability strategies and initiatives. Back in 2011, TRAI had already released communication on the approach operators need to take towards Sustainability – with a recommendation that all rural towers and 50% of urban towers be hybrid-powered by 2020.

Additionally, the TRAI recommendation suggested that all telecom products, equipment, and services in the telecom network be energy and performance assessed and certified “Green Passport [GP]”. In 2021, the Telecommunication Engineering Center (TEC) under the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) (under the Ministry of Communications, Government of India) completed the first phase of setting up of the Green Passport Lab, with the objective of standardizing test procedures and certification of telecom equipment for Green Passport based on Energy Consumption Rating (ECR).

In addition, Indian telecom operators must also adhere to global goals relating to environmental Sustainability.

“We have been ahead of the curve in embracing green energy to power our networks and data centers and have made massive progress in reducing our carbon footprint. We are aligned to GSMA’s commitment to transform the global mobile industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

Gopal Vittal, CEO of Airtel

This affirms the company’s commitment to the net zero goals of the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA).

The unprecedented consumer demands for digital communications during the pandemic and the growing need for high speeds (in digital communication) have forced telecom infrastructures to consume more energy than ever. Moreover, global data traffic is expected to grow around 60% per year; consequently, information and communication technology (ICT) industry and telecom operators have a sizeable impact on both CO2 emissions and waste. Telecom operators must therefore manage capacity of their telecom networks. This comes at a time when operators are working towards deployment of 5G and fiber to expand their reach. This has put pressure on telecom operators, who must ensure that they are fulfilling the needs of the end users as well as making sure that their networks are green with reduced CO2 emissions.

Telecom operators are implementing various sustainable practices

The Indian telecom industry has rolled out many Sustainability initiatives aimed at achieving goals in line with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets and moving towards a green environment. For example, Airtel has committed to reducing absolute Scope 1 and 2 green house gas (GHG) emissions by 50.2% till FY2031 (from FY2021 as base year) and it aspires to be net zero by 2050. In addition to this, Airtel has also committed to reducing absolute Scope 3 GHG emissions by 42% till FY2031.

On the other hand, Reliance JIO has announced its ambition to become a net zero company by 2035 and has received an ‘A-‘rating (leadership level) by CDP for  environmental leadership, based on level of transparency and performance on climate change, forests, and water security.

Additionally, Vodafone Idea (VI) is continuing its Sustainability journey with special focus on energy efficiency and emission reduction.

Overall, Indian telecom industry players are realizing the need to factor in societal and environmental impact assessments in business strategies and are taking several steps in this direction (as mentioned above and in the sections below). They are working towards making Sustainability an integral part of their business considerations.

Telecom operators are in action to achieve Sustainability goals

  1. Use of renewable energy

Over the past decade, the Indian telecom sector has witnessed phenomenal growth; and mobile telephony has revolutionized the country. The popularity of cell phones and wireless communication devices has resulted in a substantial increase in the installation of mobile base trans receiver stations (BTSs) across the country. This has further accentuated the need for optimal use of renewable energy, to meet the needs of a growing population.

To address this, Airtel, for example, has replaced its old Diesel Generator (DG) with a 64 solar DG hybrid model across various network sites. It has also signed power wheeling agreements for procurement of green energy to be used in the network.

VI too has exclusive solar solutions at over 2400 sites. Additionally, the company has signed power purchase agreements of over 26MW for solar, wind, and hydro power across India.

  • e-Waste reduction and circular economy

Telcos are making efforts to minimize use of natural resources, and wherever possible, to recycle the resources. For example, at Airtel, faulty modules are repaired in-house, and through third-party repair centers, to reduce the purchase of virgin materials. The company collaborates with third parties for waste collection (including collection of used Airtel setup boxes for upcycling and remanufacturing). In 2022, Airtel recycled 2951 tons of e-waste.

  • Minimizing office waste generation

Another initiative that most Indian telcos are focusing on is ‒ in-house waste reduction; it can help reduce environmental impact of excavation of soil, stones, and gravel while constructing network towers.

For example, Vodafone has a robust scrap disposal policy in place to ensure it complies with the law of the land and its reporting is done to the concerned authorities, periodically. This IT-automated initiative has led to savings of approximately 7000 A4 sheets, which is the equivalent of almost 50 kg of wood.

  • Data center efficiency

Telcos are also shifting focus towards data center efficiency and reduction of energy emissions therein.

For example, Airtel has taken several measures for optimizing energy efficiency in data centers. Some of these are: optimization of lighting and uninterrupted power supply (UPS),tracking power usage effectiveness, and adding new cooling solutions. Rooftop solar plants were installed across 31 locations by the end of FY 2021-22 at Airtel data centers and main switching centers ‒ with the total installed capacity of 1.78 MWp. This resulted in estimated savings of 1,354 tons of CO2 emissions.

  • Logistics and suppliers

There is also a clear focus of Indian telcos on the suppliers’ side.

For example, Airtel encourages suppliers to reduce GHG emissions in operations and to increase adoption of renewable energy. Airtel also encourages suppliers to use recyclable and safe packaging material.

A holistic approach towards Sustainability will help Indian telecom operators achieve net zero goals

1. Use of technology to deploy newer green network

With the recent conclusion of the 5G auction, its network deployment will begin soon. In absolute terms, 5G will lead to more emissions; however, when measured in terms of per GB data, it will be more energy efficient as compared to 4G. Operators can use some technology-based solutions to counter the overall spike in energy consumption and deploy a green network. Some of the examples are: AI/ML based switching off of the network elements based on traffic conditions, IoT-enabled smart metering and fuel monitoring, leveraging Open RAN in the network for energy efficiency.

Telecom operators should keep making necessary efforts to stabilize energy consumption, while continuously expanding network reach.

2. Sustainable supply chain

Ideally, nearly 70% of the emissions would come from Scope 3. The fact that Scope 3 is not under direct control of operators makes it even more difficult to manage. Operators need to take steps to bring  suppliers within the ambit of Sustainability. Operators could implement a ‘responsible sourcing’ framework and they could assess each supplier on Sustainability criteria before onboarding. Other methods of engaging suppliers can be collaborating with them for innovations in product design and engaging them to set Sustainability goals.

3. Sustainability as way of working

By making Sustainability reporting and ESG ratings more comprehensive and transparent, telcos can attempt to embed Sustainability in the thought process of every employee. Every technician, product manager, developer, CxO, and other employee could ideally follow Sustainability as a central theme while designing products, addressing customer needs, or making strategic decisions.

4. Sustainable operations

Sustainability in operations would help reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Operators have already recognized this opportunity and have set ambitious, yet achievable, goals for operations.  Energy efficiency and circular economy are two concepts that can be successfully implemented across operations. Be it a technician’s visit to customers, data centers, or RAN, there are multiple opportunities to reduce energy consumption across operations. Refurbishing and reusing network equipment can prolong the life span of the network, while recycling of equipment can bring raw materials back in the value chain. Telcos can implement an internal marketplace to facilitate reuse and recycling of network equipment.

5. Decarbonize other industries

Telcos can extend the Sustainability paradigm to clients. Capgemini Invent India’s Telecom Consulting team has already provided a view point on this. With this, telcos could help clients achieve their Sustainability visions and also monetize their Sustainability offerings. One such example is NTT, which has launched Sustainability-as-a-service offerings for its clients.


Indian telecom operators have declared their Sustainability visions and have launched a few Sustainability initiatives, which are still in the early stages. These operators need to act as enablers of Sustainability, instead of relating to it as a mere cost center. They need to work with customers and partners to move towards green energy and to help reduce energy usage. Technological innovations and embedding Sustainability in business processes will be key in achieving these goals. After setting their own house in order, telcos need to look towards Sustainability as a new revenue stream.