At the Speed of Green: Fiber's Three Key Sustainability Benefits

Experts found that by transitioning to new, more innovative technologies, the carbon footprint for both home and office can be substantially reduced. By migrating to a more sustainable digital infrastructure with fiber, consumers will enjoy the fastest possible internet speeds and a more environment-friendly solution.

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Copenhagen, Denmark, March 31, 2023 - As the world seeks solutions to a rapidly escalating climate crisis, the focus is often on visible culprits: emissions from our cars, pollution from manufacturing plants, unrecyclable waste and trash piling up in landfills and the ocean.

But with many employers moving to a hybrid working model, and families consuming more entertainment at home, it’s important we look at the impact telecommunications tools have on our carbon footprint. The answer, while not quite as dramatic as a source such as transportation pollution, is still significant. The Boston Consulting Group estimates telecommunications is responsible for 3-4% of global emissions, with up to or even more than 90% of that footprint categorized as Scope 3 emissions – indirectly from telco product manufacturers and suppliers.

The good news: technologies such as fiber optic cable give telecommunications companies a strategy to tackle Scope 3 emissions. Fiber optic cable is perhaps our most important tool in the effort, enabling telcos to offer high-speed connectivity while reducing their dependence on copper wire transmission. And fiber’s sustainability benefits aren’t reserved for when the technology is in operation – it’s a greener option throughout its lifecycle. Here’s how.

Cleaner sourcing/manufacturing

Traditional copper wire leaves a large carbon footprint behind as it moves through manufacturing. Reuters reports copper mining is responsible for up to 2.5 tons of carbon emissions per ton of metal produced, while the smelting process can produce 1.65 tons. Beyond copper manufacturing’s direct emissions, however, it’s important to also consider its impacts on communities. Pollution from copper mines can filter into the environment, contaminating freshwater sources and farmland.

Conversely, fiber’s sustainable benefits begin with the materials used to create the cables. The core of a fiber optic cable contains silica glass, a nearly infinite resource derived from sand and rocks without the need for massive mining operations. And as more companies look at ways to improve the sustainability of the cable’s other components – such as employing cable sleeves made primarily of recycled plastic – the gap between copper and fiber manufacturing sustainability will continue to widen.

Cleaner operations

The difference in carbon footprints between running a fiber network and a copper network is staggering. The European Commission measured the footprint of a fiber network and a copper network each performing at 50 mbps, ultimately finding the fiber network was responsible for 37% fewer emissions – 2.7 tons vs. 1.7 tons.

Much of the difference is attributable to how each technology transmits data. In a copper wire-based system, electrical pulses send data out to the end user, requiring significant energy to work – and with more pressure on copper infrastructure as the internet places an increasingly important role in our lives, the impact of this footprint will only become more apparent.

In a fiber-based system, light pulses transmit data, reducing the telco’s dependence on energy generation for day-to-day operations. As a result, fiber optics loses less data over long distances, offering both lower latency and a lower carbon footprint.

Cleaner resiliency

A fiber-based system’s benefits aren’t only for the short term. In fact, its durability reduces a telco’s carbon footprint for years to come. While copper exposed to the elements can corrode and need replacement every few years, fiber – thousands of miles of which run across the ocean floor – can last for decades. And because fiber wires don’t require electricity to transmit data, they eliminate the fire hazards of copper wire.

As telcos reduce the need to replace wires, they also reduce the carbon footprints caused by their suppliers – the emissions caused by mining and smelting copper, by building wire coats that require more materials, and by digging and removing wires. This benefit will be especially important as the interconnections in the global economy grow, ensuring the systems that keep countries connected function securely and sustainably for the long term.

A cleaner tomorrow

It’s no surprise that telcos are turning to fiber optic networks to replace dated copper solutions – they offer the latency needed for a world where most of our activities, either at home or at work, involve the internet. But it’s important to also appreciate the benefits of fiber beyond its functionality.

Fiber offers a win-win-win – it’s less costly in the long term for telcos, more reliable for consumers, and more sustainable for the planet. With the technology’s more eco-friendly sourcing and manufacturing processes, its greener operations and its long-lasting design, it’s clear the future of telecommunications sustainability is in fiber.