Podcast: Telcos and techcos ask, Where’s the gold in going Green?
Telcos and tech providers are accelerating their sustainability efforts, says Tilly Gilbert, principal consultant at STL Partners and a guest on the latest Trending Tech Podcast. Some are bringing forward net zero goals and C-suites are incentivising, but the real drive is coming from middle management. Amanda Brock, CEO of OpenUK, tells us bringing 5G-enabled data centres closer to end users can start a process to cut carbon emissions by up to 80%. And Amanda has bad news for Donald Trump; his Truth social platform is in for a short, sharp legal loss if he fails to comply with open source licensing terms for the Mastodon code it is using.
Jeremy Cowan 0:04
Hi and Welcome to the Trending Tech Podcast brought to you by IoT-Now.com, VanillaPlus.com and The Evolving Enterprise. I’m Jeremy Cowan, co-founder of these three tech sites. And today we’ve got some really eminent guests for you with a shared interest in greener telecoms and IT.
In no particular order, they are Tilly Gilbert, principal consultant at STL Partners, who has led consulting projects with both telcos and tech companies in network automation, edge computing, and 5G business-to-business strategies. Tilly has authored research reports including Building Tech, Telco Edge Infrastructure, MEC Private Networks and V-RAN, and Recovering from COVID – 5G to Stimulate Growth and Drive Productivity. But today, she’s helping us focus on sustainability. Tilly, welcome.
Tilly Gilbert 1:04
Thanks, Jeremy. Good to be here.
Jeremy Cowan 1:06
Good to have you. And our second guest today is Amanda Brock, the CEO of OpenUK, a not-for-profit organisation promoting open source software, hardware and open data. Her organisation also works for international collaboration in open technology and cooperation between business, the public sector, and governments. I should add, she is also the editor of Open Source Law, Policy and Practice being published by Oxford University Press in 2022. Amanda is a lawyer with 25 years’ experience who chaired the open source and IIP advisory group of the United Nations Technology Innovation Labs, and she was General Counsel of Canonical for five years. That’s quite a CV, Amanda; thank you too, for joining the Trending Tech Podcast.
Amanda Brock 1:58
Thanks very much for having me along today, Jeremy,
Jeremy Cowan 2:00
It’s great. And I see you’ve brought your fabulous cat.
Amanda Brock 2:04
Jeremy Cowan 2:05
Dundee! Well, we should keep an ear out for Dundee. Now, as our regular listeners know, we like to start by sharing an item of serious tech news. Tilly, what have you seen in the tech news lately?
Tilly Gilbert 2:20
Yeah. So, I suggested, Jeremy that we mention AWS’s recent announcements around offering a private 5G-in-a-box solution. I think it’s interesting for the telcos that understand yet another play from a hyperscaler into their sort of territory.
Jeremy Cowan 2:40
I find that fascinating. I mean, AWS is clearly democratising 5G with a managed service and self-installed 5G Private Networks. Among the claims for it seem to be that it’s up and running in minutes and works right out of the box. And words like ‘revolutionary’ do get bandied around far too much, but I have to say, this sounds pretty extraordinary.
Tilly Gilbert 3:03
It does. I mean, there’s a lot of not a lot of detail out there yet about how this actually works, and which use cases and verticals, it can truly be out-of-the-box for. But I think it’s really interesting as just even as a launch, and we have to bear in mind some of the some of the difficulties or some of the restraints that we think they’ll face. So you know, right now, this is just a US pre-launch using CBRS, but who knows where it might go in the future if it sees success?
Jeremy Cowan 3:34
Yeah, as a way of making it easy for enterprises to deploy their own private 5G networks, I mean it’s hard to imagine it being much easier. It sounds like just like setting up your own Wi Fi network at home. I mean, that is a bold claim. And the devil will surely be in the detail, as I see that there’s also no per device charges, which is going to make things interesting.
Tilly Gilbert 3:58
Yeah, yeah, exactly. That and, you know, potentially the bigger risk here is for some of the systems integrators. It seems like telcos could still be a channel for this solution. And Dish (US-based service provider, Digital Sky Highway. Ed.) has been in the PR suggesting that.So maybe there’s, you know, there’s more worry in there for the systems integrators who, for whom a highly pre-integrated solution is really going to cut into their potential opportunity.
Jeremy Cowan 4:24
Yeah. Amanda, briefly, what was your reaction when you saw this?
Amanda Brock 4:29
I think it’s quite unsurprising, actually. It’s one of the things that has always been discussed around the 5G space, the ability to create your own small networks. So, I think this is probably the first of many of these services that we’re going to see across the board. And it should be a real differentiator for 5G, I think.
Jeremy Cowan 4:48
Yeah, well, if listeners want more information on this, I suggest that they have a look at Amazon Web Services website. Amanda what tech news has struck you lately?
Amanda Brock 4:59
I’m a Scot. So, I was looking on St. Andrew’s Day for some good news. And I found the European Council approval of the Data Governance Act, which has not actually become law yet but has had the council approval. And that’s a big shift, that’s opening up data or making data accessible that would otherwise have been restricted through things like confidentiality, data privacy, intellectual property rights. So, what we see here is a big shift in Europe, they start to talk about concepts like data altruism, which is a lovely little phrase, and data altruism is voluntarily making data available. Now, this all matters because what we’re seeing as the start of what Europe is calling its Digital Decade, and that’s a decade that’s going to be built on revenue and business models focused on data. The Commission, Europe has been building up to this for a long time. We’ve seen several years of shift, and of different aspects like the Schrems litigation playing out to lead to this. And I think Margrethe Vestager, their competition commissioner and VP Digital, says that it’s a solid and fair data driven economy that they’re trying to create, and that this is the first step towards. I think it’s going to be a really big piece of news as we start to understand the implications of that from Europe.
Jeremy Cowan 6:21
Yeah. Well, not being a lawyer and trying to assimilate this quickly, I found Margrethe’s comments really helpful. She, for anyone who doesn’t know her, is the executive vice president for A Europe Fit For The Digital Age. And I think she said something along the lines of, “This regulation is a first building block for establishing a solid and fair data-driven economy.” As you say, she went on to add, “It’s about setting up the right conditions for trustful data sharing,” which really did everything I needed to do to understand what they were driving at. Tilly, is there anything that occurred to you after reading about this?
Tilly Gilbert 7:01
Just to note that in there, after having spoken about AWS, that cloud service providers that also offer these data intermediation services, won’t be able to make commercial offers for users that use both services. So, the idea of, you know, trying to separate out the two and making sure that you know that there is an anti-bundling measure, I think is interesting considering the previous story that we spoke about, as well.
Jeremy Cowan 7:27
Amanda, anything to add to that?
Amanda Brock 7:29
Yeah, away from the data, you point out Vestager’s ability to explain things. And if you are interested in tech, I think she is the person to watch in Europe. She has an unrivalled understanding of how the tech sector works from her 10 years as the Competition Commissioner. And obviously, between her and a very strong advisory team. Her outputs are always really, really insightful, and with a really deep understanding in technology. So, if you want to get at what’s actually happening then read what she says about it.
Jeremy Cowan 8:04
I will. I wasn’t really very aware, I knew the name, but I didn’t really take in a lot of what she’s done. And I found her comments really helpful. So, I’ll take your advice on that.
Now, Amanda, there’s been a lot about environmental sustainability in the news lately, and we talked a bit about COP26 meeting in the last podcast, pod 18. But at OpenUK, if I’m right, I think you’ve been working on a blueprint that supports carbon-neutral and carbon-negative projects. Is that right?
Amanda Brock 8:38
That’s absolutely right. We hosted a day at COP 26, where we were given the federated Hermes fringe venue, right next to the Hydro. So, we were next to the blue and green zones. And we had a couple of hundred people face-to-face, a couple of hundred online, and hosted a day where we looked at how open technology impacts sustainability, whether that’s on a pure-play technology needing to be open to be, you know, recycled, to be part of the circular economy to be shareable, to be sustainable. But also looking at things like collaboration, the societal values that open source brings. And in that bigger strategy, we’ve started to look at use cases and blueprints. And their first blueprint, as you mentioned, Jeremy, was for the data centre of the future, the carbon-neutral data centre of the future. And that project brings together sort of six buckets of requirements around data centres, all of which have been and can be opened up. But for the first time, we bring those together to create a holistic picture. And the project that we’ve done, the use case that we’ve built has now been given to an open source foundation, The Eclipse Foundation. We’re going to run that and take contributions and build community around it.
So, what I hope is that we’ll see a real shift and that the shift is using Tilly’s 5G example, to bring data centres closer to the end user, to have 5G-enabled edge data centres reusing existing building stock that’s perhaps been made redundant from the pandemic. But bringing that in an Edge way closer to the users and running it on open hardware models, running open source software improving things like containerisation and virtualisation, which reduces the amount of software, which reduces the amount of hardware that it’s running on and can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%.
Jeremy Cowan 10:33
Can you help me sort of understand the scale of the problem, particularly in data centres? I saw a statistic, the property giant CBRE says that 400 megawatts of new data centre space is expected to go online this year in Europe alone. And the same again in 2022. I mean, is that an accurate representation of the scale of the problem?
Amanda Brock 10:58
I’m going to be really honest with you, I’m the world’s worst at statistics and retaining things like that kind of data. (Laughter) And you can Google as your users can or your listeners can as quickly as I can. If you Google the question you have just asked, you will see the scale of the problem is phenomenal. Every data transaction we do has to be processed in a data centre. Now, the more we digitalise, which of course we are, and we have and we’ve done rapidly through the pandemic, the more that we use this function. And I think Ireland has made itself a real target here. Ireland has encouraged the build of data centres, and the technology sector moving there. And I think a colleague said to me that by 2030, I can’t remember if it was a quarter or a third of the power generated in Ireland would be used by data centres. Now, I think that sort of gives you a sense of the scale. Right? And my figures are not that, … you know, don’t hold me to those exact figures. Google it, search it. Yeah, the searches are available. But you know, it is a massive, massive problem that we all need to understand and address.
Jeremy Cowan 12:02
Yeah. I particularly love the name of your project, when promoted in Scotland at COP 26, The Patchwork Kilt, I’ve seen it described as, “a framework for organisations to adopt more energy-efficient design in how they build, operate, and manage the supply chain for data centres.” My quote is quite a long one. But what else can you tell us about Patchwork Kilt?
Amanda Brock 12:25
So, what it does, it’s a patchwork because it brings together existing use cases, which have real life examples to back up their provenance and their ability to deliver. And it stitches those together. And in stitching them together, what we’ve done is identify where there have been gaps, where more work is needed. The true nature of collaboration, and communities come to play. And as we’ve done that many of the patches have been stitched in, have been filled by people coming to us saying, well, there is already an open project. So, what you end up with is this beautiful patchwork of Open. We fashioned into the kilt because we released it at COP 26 in Glasgow. And in a way for me, that gives us a measure. So, whenever I go back, you know, if I go back in a year or five years or 10 years, assuming the project is still running within Eclipse and look at it, there is this clear marker from the 11th of November at COP 26. And we can see how it’s evolved and how the adoption has worked.
Jeremy Cowan 13:27
You suggested and you’ve already mentioned, using edge and 5G technology to enable the use of derelict buildings, which sounds so straightforward and sensible to create smaller data centres closer to the end user. How has the market reacted to your ideas? Indeed, has it reacted at all?
Amanda Brock 13:47
We’ve had so much engagement with the data centre press and community, it’s been incredible. I think realistically, change takes time. And this is quite a radical shift that we’re proposing. So those who build data centres, the easiest thing in the world for them is to continue to do it in the same way. And what we really need is to see a change in business and what business is held accountable for. And I think that’s something that has been driven out of COP 26 and will continue to be driven. We need to go beyond shareholder value, we need to look at societal value, we need to look at ESGs (Environmental, Social & Governance policies, Ed.) bringing in those environmental and societal values. And I think we’re beginning to see regulators shift towards that. I think COP has been a driver for that and there will be some benefit that comes out of COP. So, I don’t know of a data centre being built next week in this way. But I do know of conversations where people are starting to work towards it and look at it and I would also recommend looking at the SDIA, the Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance out of the Netherlands, who we work very closely with and the work that they’re doing around building that infrastructure in a practical way.
Jeremy Cowan 15:01
That’s really helpful. I think our listeners could go ahead and have a look for a bit more information from there. So, what will be the first evidence to the outside world of the success of this project?
Amanda Brock 15:15
I think it will be when we see the first data centre being built in this way, when we see fewer being built out of town. OVH … you know, everything we’re doing exists already. It’s the pooling together, the stitching together of those individual projects. OVH, the French cloud provider, infamously already uses existing buildings. You know, we know it’s doable. BT in the UK has been taking its old exchanges, and already converting them into little data centres. So, when we see those also opening up and starting to use more open source software and opening up their data, going back to my Data Governance Act, as we start to see more data being opened up, then I think we’ll see the shift. And I think a lot of that shift comes from regulation. So, I think we will see the regulators requiring this opening up of data. It won’t be entirely altruistic.
Jeremy Cowan 16:06
I love this concept of data altruism. I think we’re gonna come back to that. Amanda, thanks very much. Where can people get more information on your work?
Amanda Brock 16:14
Jeremy Cowan 16:17
Brilliant, we will. Thank you so much.
Turning to STL’s work, Tilly, I was fascinated to see you’ve been working on a Telco Roadmap to Net Zero Emissions with the subtitle, Why, When and How? Firstly, only five telecom network operators – I think it’s BT, KPN, Cogeco, TELUS and StarHub – are in the Global 100 of the world’s most sustainable corporations, which is a pretty shaming statistic. Why is that?
Tilly Gilbert 16:49
I think telcos have, in some ways, they have a difficult job to do here because of their history of managing huge legacy infrastructure across a nation. So, they are not in an easy position. But I think there is much more that can be done. And I think COP26 has seen a real acceleration of interest and effort around sustainability from a telecoms perspective. And that’s really positive. And we are seeing operators move their net zero goals to a more aggressive timeframe. There have been recent announcements around that, BT being one. So, there is positive direction here. But there’s much more that telcos can do and much more that needs to be done to kind of shift the needle significantly.
Jeremy Cowan 17:40
Do you think that this is something that doesn’t get sufficient attention at board level?
Tilly Gilbert 17:45
I think it’s tricky, we’re seeing that more and more. One thing that we recommend in our paper that some of the leading operators have already done, is to make sure that board incentives are tied not just to financial goals, but also to goals around ESG. And that’s a really concrete way that you can send a message that, from the very top down, this is a key priority for you as a company. We are seeing examples of this happen already. So, I don’t think it’s fair to say that C-suite board level aren’t paying this enough attention. I think there’s more that can be done to concretise that.
I also think we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of middle management decision makers, though, because they are going to be the people who are going to be deciding who do I want to supply my 5G network equipment? How do I want to decommission my 4G network? How am I going to manage my edge data centres and the carbon footprint of them. That sort of level of detail, where a huge amount of impact can be made is not necessarily going to fall to C-suite, it’s going to fall to middle management. So, I think we shouldn’t understate the importance of their role as well in all of this.
Jeremy Cowan 18:56
No, they’re hugely important. Sometimes it seems that getting the momentum that one wants to see in changing the attitude of a telco or a techco can be helped by having quick wins. Are there any quick wins that you’ve been able to identify that have helped build momentum internally within these companies? And perhaps what else could they do to improve?
Tilly Gilbert 19:23
Well, I think in some ways, the CFO can be a great ally in sustainability efforts, because being more efficient in your energy usage will also deliver you efficiency savings in terms of cost savings. So, there are simple, small changes that can be made that will have an impact from a cost efficiency perspective, and also an energy efficiency perspective. And that’s where some of the quick wins are.
I think, what is harder, what we’re tending to see requiring more efforts is around things like the circular economy which Amanda mentioned at the beginning. And that is simply because it is much harder to track and to understand, even where you are today around the circular economy, let alone then set out a roadmap for improvements. In comparison to how much energy are my networks or my data centres needing to run, which is a something that’s much easier to collect as a concrete stat. And if we know anything about telcos and tech companies, they like a concrete stat. And they like a concrete goal that they can work towards, whether it’s five nines of reliability, or others that have been around in the industry for a long time.
Jeremy Cowan 20:38
So true, so true. Are there regional and market differences that are affecting this and how it’s adopted?
Tilly Gilbert 20:47
That are, and that’s partly because, you know, there are market differences between things like the availability of green energy and electricity. That is not something which is the same for all operators in all operating markets. I spoke to an Indian telecoms operator, for example, in this study and they are still having to use gas generators as back-ups to their electric grid, when the grid goes down to ensure that, you know, their network availability is still there. That puts them in a very different position in terms of what they can do from an energy perspective, in comparison to some European countries, or even Latin American countries where you see green energy is much more easily available to them.
So, market factors have a big part to play in this. But there’s also the side of things of what the operators themselves are doing too, so it’s both in combination that’s really determining where a lot of operators are at in their journey to net zero.
Jeremy Cowan 21:48
You talked about the telcos and the techcos at all levels internally. Looking outside, how can consumers encourage their digital service providers to improve their standing?
Tilly Gilbert 22:00
Yeah, it’s a difficult one, because I think, you know, maybe we can all agree that you can overstate the role that consumers have to play in comparison to the large corporations and government regulators in really making a difference. But, you know, there are decisions that can be taken around looking to move to tech and telecoms companies that can provide some serious commitment in terms of their net zero journey, in comparison to others. I think we expect that sort of decision-making to come into play more and more and become a more significant source of pressure for the telecoms operators to make change.
Jeremy Cowan 22:42
So customers will be voting with their feet, where people use this as a differentiator and say, this is one of our key priorities.
Tilly Gilbert 22:49
I think, certainly in markets where, you know, the network coverage is pretty much the same, the performance is pretty much the same, price is reasonably comparative, what are consumers going to choose on next? What’s going to be the next thing to determine where you go? And I think there’s a good chance that a commitment to carbon emissions reduction could be one of those things.
Jeremy Cowan 23:09
The last thing I wanted to ask on this is, is the trend to cloud and age data services a purely positive factor in the push to net zero?
Tilly Gilbert 23:18
I mean, Amanda, I’d be really interested to hear your opinion on this. What I have heard from the conversations I’ve had is, it’s not pure and simple gonna necessarily drive a reduction in carbon emissions. And part of that is running a very large centralised data centre, you do get an economy of scale, you do get a very mature, sophisticated HVAC system and means of power and cooling, which can be, you know, relatively green.
Once you start to distribute data centres out to the edge, I think there is a challenge and how you make sure that all of those sites are as efficient as possible, and which is inherently more difficult than if you have it in one place. So, I’ve certainly heard operators and others looking to the edge opportunity, questioning what it will do in terms of their carbon footprint to manage many distributed sites rather than a few more centralized ones. But I feel I’m talking about something that Amanda probably knows a lot more about than me, so maybe she will correct me.
Amanda Brock 24:24
Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. And it’s about change, and of course, their right to question as they go through change, but there’s a need to adapt and shift. And when you talk about managing distributed data centres, what you have to do is balance that against the scale of the problem of the large data centres and the whole, I think it’s tier three, they call it a category three, you know, supply chain piece as well. So, there’s a very big picture that has to be pulled together.
I believe that the carbon footprint dramatically changes, not just by moving the existing infrastructure to an edge-based local data centre but by changing what that’s made up of as well. And bringing into it the more open source software, containerised, virtualised kind of environment. Maybe the consequence of that is the reduction in the size of the hardware that’s needed. And I think that’s where the combination of those, if you were just to lift and shift what already exists, they’re probably right to be concerned. And I think that this is a very big change that we’re looking for from them. And they’re right to think it through and consider it, but I think it’s an inevitability.
Tilly Gilbert 25:40
The other two things that I’ve heard; one, I think, exactly speaks to what you said, Amanda around, if you can use more common off-the-shelf hardware, then you can potentially reduce the amount of underutilized appliances that are running that aren’t being fully used, which is obviously a good thing for the environment. And the other thing is around, just making sure that your cloud-native applications have been designed in an efficient manner in terms of the number of lines of code that you’re running each time, you know, that requires power. And so to make sure that that code is is optimised as you move to the cloud, is another I think, important part of the puzzle that is trying to be figured out right now.
Jeremy Cowan 26:25
That’s really helpful. Tilly, if people want more information on your work at STL, where can they get it?
Tilly Gilbert 26:31
Jeremy Cowan 26:34
Easy. Thanks, Tilly. Well, there’s just time for our usual What The Tech section, where we touch on any tech news that has amused or amazed you. Amanda, what have you seen?
Amanda Brock 26:46
So I’ve been looking at… you know, your listeners probably won’t find this amusing, but it’s an open source licensing piece. And I’m sure we’ve all heard of Truth social and Donald Trump’s attempt to change social media.
Jeremy Cowan 27:01
Amanda Brock 27:02
And that’s very much at risk currently, because he has taken without compliance, the open source code in Mastodon, another social network and …
Jeremy Cowan 27:13
Well, there’s a shocker.
Amanda Brock 27:15
Absolutely! But the founder at Mastodon isn’t having any of it. So, Trump may have escaped in the US, and he may have avoided impeachment, etc. But I’m not sure that he’s not about to now face the wrath of the open source compliance people.
Jeremy Cowan 27:29
Yeah, it seems unlikely that Trump’s going to be able to rebuild his platform without Mastodon code. So, do you think this will just turn into a long legal battle?
Amanda Brock 27:41
No, I don’t think so. Because he simply can’t use the code if he doesn’t comply with the license. He has no right. So, I think it will be a short, sharp legal battle. And it will be quite entertaining, I think.
Jeremy Cowan 27:53
Wow. Well, we’ve got the legal view on that. That’s fascinating.
Jeremy Cowan 28:02
Tilly, what news has amused or amazed you lately?
Tilly Gilbert 28:09
What I was surprised about is that the UK fastest broadband can be found in a street in Swansea. That was the main thing for me that really took the headlines this week.
Jeremy Cowan 28:22
So Swansea is a coastal city, for those who don’t know it, in Wales with a population of about what 300,000 I think. It’s a former industrial centre, and perhaps wasn’t necessarily where you might expect to find rapid broadband. I think that was a report you found on the BBC, wasn’t it?
Tilly Gilbert 28:42
Jeremy Cowan 28:44
And a two hour movie download there takes only 47 seconds. I don’t know what that works out as a speed. I know it’s a lot faster than my broadband. But I think that’s probably going to be bad news for bragging rights with rival city Cardiff, because they seem to be home to one of the slowest broadband streets in Britain with a download speed of just 0.34 megabits per second.
Tilly Gilbert 29:17
Yes, agreed. And it’s interesting to see just the differences in very small geographical areas the differences between the UK’s kind of broadband coverage and what can be provided to consumers.
Jeremy Cowan 29:29
It’s a phenomenal differentiator, isn’t it for people looking to relocate businesses and homes? I mean, if in Swansea’s best street you can download one movie in 47 seconds and in nearby Cardiff, it takes 33 hours. There’s something badly wrong with the provision of broadband in this country and I feel we’re probably not alone in the UK. This isn’t just a UK story.
Tilly Gilbert 29:56
I think that’s true. And yeah, you’re right to point out if you have been confined to working from home for the last year and a half or more, this starts to have even more kind of importance, let alone downloading a film. It’s about trying to do your day job as well.
Jeremy Cowan 30:10
Day job, indeed. Thanks, Tilly. Well, sadly that is all we have time for. I want to thank you both for sharing your time with our listeners. Tilly, it’s been great to have you here.
Tilly Gilbert 30:19
Thanks so much, Jeremy. Thanks, everyone.
Jeremy Cowan 30:22
And Amanda, we really appreciate all your input.
Amanda Brock 30:25
Thanks very much Jeremy.
Jeremy Cowan 30:26
And of course Dundee’s as well, not forgetting Dundee. Before we go, let me just say we’ve got some more great podcasts in the pipeline. So if you’ve enjoyed this one, please go to wherever you found us today, and give us a 5-star review. It can’t do us any harm, and it certainly boosts us up the chart so that others can find this podcast easily in the future. We’d be really grateful if you do.
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