29 April, 2024

Accelerating Sustainability in Telecoms - Research Report

This study supports the project ‘Accelerating sustainability in telecoms’, led by the social partners in telecoms ETNO and UNI Europa ICTS. The aim of the study is to analyse 11 key emerging technologies which are likely to considerably impact the telecommunication industry, and their impact on social and environmental sustainability.

The selected technologies are: 

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)
  • Big data and analytics
  • Cloud computing
  • Edge computing
  • Internet of Things (IoT)
  • 5G and 6G
  • Optic Fibre and GPON
  • Quantum technologies
  • Blockchain and technologies for cybersecurity
  • Extended reality
  • xRAN

The report will also provide a solid foundation for the subsequent project activities, and is based on inputs derived from desk research, interviews with experts from the sector, and inputs from stakeholder engagement collected during the first roundtable of the project. Together with the report, a set of 11 infographics has been developed in order to facilitate the distribution of knowledge about key impactful technologies in the European telecommunication industry. The study does not aim to be comprehensive regarding the technologies chosen for analysis. Rather, it aims to provide a window of knowledge on those technologies that have been identified as potentially impactful by ETNO members. Moreover, given the novelty of the topic examined, the methods employed have been predominantly qualitative, as statistics specific to selected technologies’ use in telcos are not yet comprehensive. With these limitations in mind, the analysis constitutes a ‘technology handbook’, aimed at enhancing the capacity of social partners to facilitate change in telecom companies.  

These technologies’ impact on environmental sustainability has been found to be potentially substantial, and the solutions converge on their possibility to make telcos more energy efficient. While some solutions are aimed at streamlining processes and reallocating energy flows only where they are the most needed (e.g., data analytics and AI), others (such as 5G, optic fibre, and edge computing) represent newer generations of known technologies, which consume inherently less energy than their predecessors. Additionally, as part of a broader trend in the ICT sector, some telcos are exploring new roles as digital service providers, offering to their customers digital and technological solutions to become more energy efficient. This confirms the role of telcos as key enablers of sustainability in the wider society.  

Concerning the technologies’ impact on workers and the labour market, the analysis presented some favourable impacts, and some points for concern. Most prominently, certain AI and IoT applications (e.g. algorithmic management and biometric monitoring) raised concerns around workers’ rights, such as the infringement of privacy and potential reductions in individual autonomy. Nevertheless, the same technologies can also be positively harnessed to create better safety conditions for workers, particularly during hazardous and repetitive tasks, creating positive wellbeing outcomes. Other technologies, such as 5G/6G, optic fibre, cloud computing, and edge computing, will be pivotal to the growing prevalence of telework and hybrid work, which are also emerging as key trends in the labour sphere with significance for telcos. In particular, the reorganisation of work tasks and workspaces is expected to have implications for workers’ health and safety, tied to the availability of equipment and the ‘right to disconnect’ (the right of employees to not be continuously available outside of working hours). In parallel, nearly all the technologies examined had an impact on workers’ skills, which are constantly evolving and in need to be upgraded.  

Due to the impact of technology on workers being potentially both positive and negative, the involvement of employees and social partners at an early stage of technology roll-out takes on a particularly important role in the road to the twin transition. This is why the study also analyses the role of social dialogue in promoting sustainability and mitigating the negative effects of technology implementation. The study shows that a historically good relationship between telcos and trade unions can be a key element of trust during the negotiation process, as well as willingness from both parties to listen and understand the specific implications of new technologies. Nevertheless, some hurdles still emerge, mainly tied to the fast pace of technological change and innovation, which may weaken each party’s negotiating position due to a fundamental lack of knowledge of the solution itself. For this reason, a selection of case studies was included throughout the report to be treated as best practice scenarios of technology implementation and/ or social dialogue involvement throughout the process. 



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