Internet and Energy are Intrinsically Linked and Could be Built out Together
By Karen McCabe, IEEE
It is estimated that about 4 billion people around the world lack internet access and about a billion do not have reliable electricity access. Expanding internet access to the more than half of the world that still does not have it today demands more than Ethernet cables, Wi-Fi signals and computers, phones or other devices; it also requires power.
“Energy is really the base for the internet,” said Nilmini Rubin, vice president, international development, with Tetra Tech, and lead of the IEEE Internet Initiative Connectivity and Energy Working Group.
Internet and energy connectivity are intrinsically linked. To not have access to safe, reliable, affordable power or internet or especially both is to be left further and further behind. The World Economic Forum in 2016 noted that expanding “internet adoption and use is consistent with, and in multiple instances, supportive of many of the United Nations (UN) global goals for sustainable development–not least those related to education, gender equality, jobs and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, and sustainable cities and communities.”
Not only is the potential transformation in quality of life for the unconnected so much greater if both energy and internet inclusion are expanded in tandem, there also are potentially breakthrough efficiencies to be realized in the monumental task of building out both networks together.
Shared Benefits, Shared Obstacles
Expansion of internet and energy face many of the same barriers–lack of access to the same (usually rural and remote) markets, similarly high requirements in terms of both operational and capital expenditure (OPEX and CAPEX) and similarly slow returns on investment.
The power required to enable internet activity is estimated to account for about 10 percent of all energy used around the world. At the same time, Internet of Things (IoT) deployment is accelerating, meaning many more internet-enabled devices must be powered and served.
The forecast is that the world’s data centers are expected to consume at least three times as much electricity in the next decade, said Rubin.
Information, communication and technology (ICT) energy demand can be organized into four interrelated categories: data centers, end-user devices, ICT hardware manufacturing and wireless networks. Data centers’ electricity costs to power computer servers over their expected four-year life span often outpaces the expense to purchase those servers. In addition, the share of data center spending on electricity grows as hardware expenses drop, rendering energy costs an increasingly crucial barrier to overcome in the effort to extend affordable, secure internet access to unconnected people around the world.
In turn, expansion of internet connectivity can bring improved efficiencies for electricity systems–through innovations like smart grids, IoT and connected devices such as smart meters and smart thermostats.
Beyond technology innovation, policy and financial communities also need an integrated approach to energy and internet expansion. A panel looked at “the intersection of internet and energy expansion” at the 12th Annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Geneva in December 2017.
Manu Bhardwaj, vice president, research and insight, MasterCard Center for Inclusive Growth, pointed to J.P. Morgan’s relationship with Thomas Edison as an example of the advances that can come from investors working in sync with inventors. Morgan’s investment in Edison was fundamental in the development of the world’s first power station and moving Manhattan from kerosene- to electricity-powered homes and businesses. Similarly, the panelists agreed that the financial community has a critical role to play in advancing energy and internet expansion today.
Government is another important player in the movement. At the IGF panel, Rubin urged that internet and energy access be recognized as foreign-policy issues and fundamental aspects of modern life.
There are key actions that government agencies can carry out to move the world toward universal internet and energy access. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, leads a project to map energy and internet infrastructure around the world.
There are regulatory innovations to be considered that could advance internet and energy inclusion, too. For example, some nations require that renewable power be connected to the grid. Relaxing such requirements would create an option for data centers to move to decentralized renewable energy sources, without the complexity of ensuring that such distributed generation does not destabilize the existing energy grid. In addition, just as internet exchange points link networks and countries together for unbroken connections, the power grid would benefit from cross-country power exchanges and arrangements.
Another important policy innovation is the “Build Once” (or “Dig Once”) approach to infrastructure development that is gaining sway in markets around the world. It’s a simple idea–to include means for internet access along with the rollout of energy access or vice versa. This strategy is not limited to only electricity infrastructure, but can also include other infrastructure expansion such as new roads, railways, pipelines, etc. Another manifestation of this notion is electricity and internet distributors sharing towers for their wires, or electricity and internet distributors coordinating to lay wires under new roads. The efficiencies are obvious; the socioeconomic benefits, exponential.
The challenge is primarily one of cutting across traditionally “siloed” conversations. As Ms. Rubin has said, the professionals working to extend internet service and those working to extend power typically have not worked closely with one another and, consequently, “sometimes don’t realize their solutions are very similar.”
Collaborating Across Disciplines
The IEEE Internet Initiative Connectivity and Energy Working Group is connecting the dots among representatives from the global technology, policy and investment communities. It is looking at how to expand access to both the internet and energy concurrently, as well as how to reduce the costs of energy so that internet access can be realized and sustained. Among its first steps are performing a literature search and creating an events calendar to inform the professionals of events in each other’s spaces.
IEEE Smart Village projects in Cameroon, Haiti, India, Nigeria and other countries have brought together different types of professionals to provide solutions combining renewable power, education, training and employment in remote, sparsely populated communities where people typically live on less than $1 to $2 per day. On the other hand, there is significant IEEE standards-development activity–in areas such as the IoT, smart energy, smart networking, smart transportation, etc.–to help the world’s rapidly crowding cities more efficiently, securely and reliably meet their population’s exploding energy and internet-connectivity needs.
Internet and energy connectivity improve quality of life in most every way imaginable, and the socioeconomic benefits are maximized when the two are expanded in tandem. The technology, policy and economic-development communities focused on expanding energy access and those focused on extending internet inclusion are finding value in taking an integrated approach to tackling their challenges. | PGI
Karen McCabe is IEEE’s senior director of technology policy and international affairs, in Piscataway, New Jersey. She leads the organization’s partnerships with the United Nations and other international bodies, with a focus on engagement of the technical community and the intersection of policy and technology in information and communication technologies. She is a member of the Internet Society and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Internet technical advisory committee.