Sharing Telecom Towers – a greener, more clever idea?

The telecom infrastructure space has been grappling with a lot of new environmental frequencies in the recent past. It’s a tight-wire walk of sorts to balance the need for uptime, coverage and scale while juggling between active vs. passive tower mix, reducing energy consumption whether it’s towards AC use or on the side of a BTS network. There is also the well-due pressure of aligning with government mandates on reducing carbon footprint and other imperatives like Green Passport standards, Voluntary Code of Practice by Service Providers, energy efficient Network Planning, infra-sharing and adoption of Renewable Energy Technologies etc.

Incidentally, Indus Towers has come out with its first Sustainability Report and while many of the issues listed above still hang in the air or await a firmer shape in the next year’s report, here are a few insights that B S Shantharaju, CEO, Indus Towers  shares with Pratima H in an interaction. Despite some questions and curiosity areas awaiting the next year’s report, he shares what he can on the methodology, industry’s own struggle for bandwidth in sustainability stratosphere, usage of AC, retrofitting solutions, the factor of diesel consumption in a sector like this, the road ahead and a few other issues.

In earlier stints, Shantharaju has also worked with Delhi International Airports (P) Limited as the Chief Executive Officer after the airport BS Shantharaju - Copywas privatized, where he led the transformation of airport. He has been the Managing Director for Gujarat Gas Company Limited, a large city gas distribution company. Presently, he is steering Indus Towers Limited, an independently managed company offering passive infrastructure services to all telecom and an entity that has been promoted under a joint venture among entities of Bharti Infratel Limited (rendering telecom services in India under the brand name Airtel), Vodafone India (rendering telecom services under the brand name Vodafone) and Aditya Birla Telecom (rendering telecom services under the brand name Idea Cellular).

 What was the overall experience and future-lesson-takeaways from this 1st sustainability report attempt? What would you say are the key highlights you spot here?

This is the first voluntarily reported Sustainability Report by a telecom infrastructure organization in India, as well as the first sustainability report of Indus Towers. It knits together the organization’s different functions, and helps the organization get more focused on its deliverables. The ExCITE values seem to be deeply rooted across the organization.

There are many key highlights of the report. While the business is growing, Indus Towers has been able to reduce its absolute diesel consumption. We remain committed to protecting the environment, expanding our engagement with communities through CSR, delivering the best client service and striving to provide our employees with an enabling work environment. Indus has been an active participant in various forums and associations such as Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Tower and Infrastructure Providers Associations (TAIPA), Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), TERI-Business Council for Sustainable Development, CSO Forum, FICCI and ASSOCHAM to collaboratively work in the areas of telecommunication passive infrastructure, energy efficiency, renewable energy, CSR etc. We endeavor to be the preferred partner to our customers with the highest level of responsiveness and agreed services consistently. We have been proactive in our engagements with landlords, identifying concerns and jointly working with the landlords to resolve the same. Excellence at Indus starts with the demonstration of intent by the top management.

How well does this reflect in what you offer to the market?

Our product portfolio is designed around three core elements: (i) Tower: for mounting operator antennas at an appropriate height. (ii) Power: Equipment for providing uninterrupted power supply to telecom equipment. (iii) Space: for housing telecom and power equipment. Indus has taken a stock of the requirements across each state & circle. Strong compliance management systems have been developed to comply with requirements across states. We see sustainable solutions to various risks we face in our operations, and ensure sustainable use of tower material. It is our responsibility to create a safe working environment for our employees. The trust our customers and business partners repose on us, also comes with the responsibility for ethical behavior in everything we do. The awards and recognitions we receive continue to drive us to raise the bar for ourselves as an industry leader.

Any specific reason on choosing GRI standard Vs. The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) standard or the Global Initiative for Sustainability Ratings (GISR) or The Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)?

Indus sustainability reportGRI appeared to be the most commonly used and standard version to report.

How do areas like PE Scorecard, Incubator and asset integrity program align with sustainability vision, if at all?

Setting right processes remains a key to success, while the incubator drives the creativity within the organization. The two together definitely pave a better future for the organization. Asset integrity drives intended output expected from products complete life cycle.

What is the overall carbon-impact of tower sharing or camouflaged towers in the industry? How much sharing is happening currently, specially for green sites?

The impact depends a lot on the local surroundings and environment, and remains site specific. On an overall basis, it has resulted in substantial amount of carbon reduction – both direct as well as indirect. It also reflects in more than 30% of our sites going green with tenancy touching 2.5 Lakh mark, and growing.

The report mentioned tower consolidation and reuse with numbers like 100 towers, 846 sites and consolidated cumulative monetary saving of Rs. 370 crores. How have these figures translated into measurable carbon footprint effects? Can you interpret this outcome for another notable progress where you created close to 35,000 Green-Sites, which you say is over 30% of the portfolio of towers?

Tower consolidation and re-use of towers results in substantial amount of carbon reduction. As per international reporting practices, the same is considered as indirect carbon emissions and is covered in Scope 3 emissions. While the green sites lead to significant reduction in direct emissions, covered in Scope 1, as per international reporting practices.

Has technology shaped up well on attacking latent power/battery usage and juggling the tough equation between profitability and downtime of towers while maintaining green-friendliness? How tough is striking this balance by current standards, equipment and technology?

There has been remarkable development in energy storage technologies, while improving the rate of energy storage two to three times. While implementing these on ground, the challenge lies in the age old and proven technology vis a vis the new. Considering the high level of uptime being maintained at the sites, striking a balance definitely poses a tough situation. The success in handling it reflects in our ability to create close to 35000 green sites.

There was an interesting part in the report about AC consumption reduction and use of outdoor sites for ambient cooling as well as work towards maximising the build-up of outdoor cell sites which eliminate the need for air-conditioners on sites, thereby reducing energy consumption. You seem to be also implementing retro fitment solutions such as DC-DG, free cooling unit, soft start inverter, and fuel catalyst to reduce energy consumption. Can you explain the rationale (How they affect positively) and some tangible metrics if any?

There have been several initiatives undertaken on energy efficiency, while environment remain one of our core values. You may expect more details in the next version of Sustainability Report.

Where does the industry stand on minimizing use of diesel and accelerating utilization of hybrid power, grid power indus1and natural solar power? What are the barriers that have been crossed and the ones that still remain?

Industry has been very aggressive in its intent to reduce diesel consumption and increase utilization of hybrid power. The initiatives taken by Indus have been elaborated in the Sustainability Report, and more details may be expected in the next version.

How easy or tough is optimization of fuel consumption, elimination and minimization of run-hour of diesel generator, GHG emissions and energy consumption today?

Energy efficiency initiatives are constantly being evaluated and deployed across the industry. Fuel optimization, DG set operation is accordingly being managed, resulting in reduction of direct GHG emissions.

The report says – ‘Our total direct and indirect energy consumptions in the reporting period were 12,883.07 TJ and 13,003.24 TJ respectively. The total GHG emissions were 3.89 million tonnes of CO2. Our joint efforts have resulted in upto 60% reduction in the power consumption of active equipment per Base Transceiver Station (BTS). The new BTSs are also capable of working at higher temperatures.’ Can you elaborate on the ‘how’ and the next levels envisaged?

Further details may reflect in our next version of Sustainability Report.

Any comments on government and regulator action on carbon reduction levels by telcos. What is the current level of net carbon reduction, and actual carbon footprint of the industry and how do we stand vis a vis global counterparts?

The government is very active and focused on carbon reduction front, and has come up with various initiatives and policies for the same. Further details may reflect in our next version of Sustainability Report.

How feasible are DoT’s go-green policy mandates for telcos to cut carbon emissions by 17% in the next five years by reducing diesel consumption, to migrate 50% of all cell towers in rural areas and 20% in urban areas to hybrid power by 2015? By 2020, operators are expected to run 75% and 33% of cell towers in rural and urban zones, respectively, on hybrid supplies. Why or why not are these goals practical or possible?

Various high level committees have been formed, at industry as well as government level, to look into these aspects. Their studies and reports, being from experts, provide more clarity on this subject.

Does passive infrastructure sharing vs active sharing of network infrastructure and also spectrum allocation strategy have any implications on environmental impact of the industry?

We have been able to save India a spectacular 3 billion USD in capital expenditure through sharing passive telecom infrastructure. It also results in significant reduction of carbon emissions. Further details may reflect in our next version of Sustainability Report.

What is the progress as you see it on these areas: Green Passport standards, Voluntary Code of Practice by Service Providers, energy efficient Network Planning, infra-sharing, deployment of energy efficient technologies and adoption of Renewable Energy Technology to reduce carbon footprints?

Some of the details have been elaborated in Chapter 7 & 8 of the report. Further details may reflect in our next version of Sustainability Report.



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