Dutch network operator KPN, which provides mobile and fixed-line service to nearly 40 million customers in The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, France and Spain, caused a stir in October, announcing an aggressive environmental initiative that could become a model for operators looking to beef up their “sustainability” credentials.  

That initiative, dubbed the "Circular Manifesto" details KPN’s goal of minimizing its carbon and environmental footprint even as data traffic on its networks continues to grow exponentially. As part of its sustainability initiatives, KPN announced agreements with numerous vendors that provide KPN’s network equipment, conferencing solutions, set-top boxes, and modems, as well as additional vendors that specialize in providing refurbishing and recycling services. KPN is pressuring its vendors to make infrastructure that is more durable and longer lasting, uses fewer raw materials, and is built in such a way that by 2025 close to 100% of the parts and resources can be reused or recycled.  


This isn’t KPN’s first embrace of sustainability – the company reports that it has been “climate neutral” since 2015, and has lowered its energy consumption for six consecutive years despite an 8x increase in data volume on its networks during that time. The “Circular Manifesto” is just the next step in what has been an ongoing focus area as it moves to embrace a “circular economy.” 


The concept of the “circular economy” isn’t new: since as early as 1976, economists have used the term to describe an environment in which resources are used for as long as possible, the most efficient technologies are deployed and renewable resources and materials are utilized where viable. According to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, circular systems provide a systemic alternative to increasingly unsustainable “linear” (make, use, dispose) approaches. However, until recently this line of thinking had been more common in verticals like retail and auto manufacturing. By contrast, sustainability initiatives in the telecommunications industry have been much more limited, inconsistent, and largely vendor-driven, motivated as much by competitive reasons as altruistic ones.  


KPN’s “Circular Manifesto” is likely to change that. Now that KPN has taken this ambitious step, it is a good bet that other operators are likely to follow suit, both as a show of corporate compassion and also to help drive down operational costs. If so, then true, long-term, industry-wide change may finally be coming. With seven telecommunications vendors already signed on, including major vendors such as Ericsson, Huawei, ZTE, HPE, and Arris, mobile and fixed networks are likely to be increasingly built with a short-term focus on improving capacity, throughput and customer satisfaction – but a long-term focus on sustainability. 

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