The unbridled success of wireless networks for Internet access and beyond has brought mobile telecommunications to remote areas of Africa, safety to many a driver stranded roadside, and worldwide mobility to professionals who were once deskbound. Yet all of this has come at a steep environmental cost: The global network and technology required to run it produce 250 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, roughly the same as is produced yearly by 50 million automobiles (20 percent of all the autos in the U.S.), according to Green Touch, a new international consortium of businesses, government agencies and academics formed to address this problem.

The consortium's response, announced Monday during a press conference in London, is for its members to develop the technology needed to make global telecommunications networks run 1,000 times more energy efficiently. A 1,000-fold reduction in energy use is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world's communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day, according to Gee Rittenhouse, vice president of research at Bell Labs, the Murray Hill, N.J.–based research and development arm of Alcatel–Lucent.

It would take a forest the size of the U.K. to absorb 250 million tons of CO2, Rittenhouse said, adding, "That's a lot of carbon dioxide. And you know what? It's growing."

The initial priorities of Green Touch—which includes Bell Labs, Stanford University's Wireless Systems Lab (WSL), Freescale Semiconductor, Inc., and 12 other members—are to develop a road map to meet its five-year goal of demonstrating new energy-efficient networking technologies and to create a reference architecture for all members to follow to assure that these new technologies work together. "The technologies needed to cut emissions have yet to be invented," Rittenhouse said. "With today's technology, at the very best, we can hold (CO2 emissions) constant."

Driven by increasing Internet traffic, telecom networks have scaled rapidly over the past decade to accommodate growth without creating new ways to address energy efficiency, Rittenhouse said. This growth has called for more computers to run the software that new handsets and Web sites require. Now, the challenge is to improve energy efficiency while also providing a consistent level of services as telecoms continue to expand.

Much of networks' inefficiencies today come from wireless, because its signals are not broadcast toward anyone in particular (unlike traditional wired broadband signals). Last year, Bell Labs researchers turned their attention to this problem and set out to calculate the minimum amount of energy required to power today's global networks.

The researchers found that networks could consume 10,000 times less energy than they use today and still function properly. "Of course this is a theoretical result," Rittenhouse said, "but a factor of 10,000 is remarkable." He added it would be "impractical" to try to reduce energy use by a factor of 10,000, but noted that the researchers determined that the technology needed to reduce energy use by a factor of 1,000 could be developed within the next five years if the networking industry (including carriers, equipment-makers and software writers) could find the right approach.

"We need from time to time to take a totally different approach rather than making incremental change," said Bell Labs President Jeong Kim, adding, "This is a wake-up call."