Reduce, reuse and recycle. This is a very well-known axiom in our day that summarizes the waste management hierarchy in three easy to remember alliterated words. It is little known, however, that the second ‘R’ of this triptych is a principle that has been widely used by the telecommunications industry since its inception. The motive behind the principle of reuse for telecommunications is less than virtuous. Nevertheless, the green benefits it provides are immense and often overlooked. The reuse of infrastructure is a very vital part of telecommunications and network design and although it was not initially employed for environmental purposes, has resulted in a vast reduction of pollution and adverse environmental impact.
Telecommunications requires cabling – and lots of it. The world’s undersea fibre optic network alone is estimated to be composed of almost 900,000 kilometres of cable! Add to that all the land based fibre optic cabling and the traditional copper cabling that connects homes and businesses to telecommunications providers all over the world and you get tens and hundreds of billions of kilometres of cabling.
All of this cabling has to be physically placed somewhere. Early on, in order to keep it out of the way, it was either strung on what we traditionally call telephone poles, or more expensively, was buried underground – out of sight and out of mind. But as this infrastructure has continually been expanding for over one hundred years, engineers quickly found ingenious methods of installation: install it near other similar infrastructures that span long distances such as roadways, water mains, power cables and natural gas lines.
For example, when building or upgrading a railway, the right-of-way of this infrastructure can be reused by the laying down of cabling such as telecom and rail cable and installing both the railway and the telecom infrastructure in one go. In this way, costs are drastically reduced – and this is the main motivation for such endeavours. A side effect, however, is the reduction of pollutants that would result from having the telecom infrastructure installed as a separate project and the mitigation of the environmental impact on the areas of construction.
Today this concept has been brought several steps further. When a new road, railway, water mains or any other such infrastructure project is being developed, it can very inexpensively include accommodation for telecom cabling. This is usually in the form of specially designed pipes that are laid down along the new infrastructure being constructed that can house telecom cabling. Enough pipes are installed so that if additional cables are needed, these can be relatively easily and cheaply added using a cable blowing machine which can blow several kilometres of cabling into the pipes in one go. No heavy machinery is necessary, no digging up of roads and no repairing roadways with asphalt is required, and thus there is less impact on the environment.
Other notable cases of reuse in telecommunications include the development of xDSL technology to reuse the ubiquitous copper telephony infrastructure for higher Internet speeds. Similarly, regions of the world where extensive coaxial cable TV networks exist have reused this infrastructure for the same purpose. No digging is necessary and no carbon producing heavy equipment need be deployed. Just change the devices on either end of the cable and there you go. Reuse in action.
All in all, the telecom industry is very familiar with the reuse of infrastructure which results in a greener world for all of us.