No one likes a dropped call. But bigger networks use more energy, and more energy means higher emissions. Enter wind power, solar energy and alternative fuels – a handful of strategies employed by AT&T that could be filed under the heading, AT&T and the environment.

Like other telecommunications giants, AT&T – which has 85.1 million customers in its 3G network – has a huge stake in becoming sustainable based on its sheer volume of business.

More than 17.3 million customers have AT&T high-speed Internet access, and AT&T carries some 18.7 petabytes of data traffic on an average day. Those connections are the bedrock of the company’s massive energy use.

“We're reorganizing the way the company manages its energy use, while maintaining — and improving — the quality, reliability and competitiveness of our services,” the company said in its 2009 Citizenship & Sustainability Report, a blueprint of sorts for the company’s plan to become green.

AT&T envisions reducing electricity consumption on its network by 15 percent compared to 2008 levels. With its eye on reducing its carbon footprint, the company plans to replace 8,000 gas-guzzling cars and trucks with vehicles that run on natural gas over a 10-year period. It will replace 7,100 passenger cars in its fleet with alternative-fuel models.

In two states – Texas and California – AT&T is experimenting with wind and solar power. The company uses wind power for 10 percent of electricity consumption at AT&T facilities in Austin, Texas, saving enough energy to power 600 homes in the city each year. At a plant in San Ramon, Calif., it installed 3,700 solar panels, generating 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of electricity, or enough to power 165 homes for one year.

For AT&T, the stakes are high. In 2008, the company measured 1,105,630 metric tons of direct carbon emissions. It measured another 7,904,886 metric tons of indirect emissions from electricity purchased to power the company network and its operations.

To implement a sustainability plan, AT&T hired its first energy director, John Schinter, who was assigned the job of shrinking the company’s carbon footprint. It also formed a sustainability advisory council, designed to help customers use communications technology to reduce their environmental impact.

Beth Shiroshi, AT&T’s AVP of Citizenship & Sustainability, said sustainable business practices are being implemented throughout the company. “We strive to minimize our environmental impact in ways that are relevant to our business and important to the communities in which we serve,” she said in a recording posted on the company website. 

In particular, AT&T has focused on its cars and trucks, since 70 percent of direct emissions came from its ground fleet. It has invested $565 million over the last 10 years to bring in electric vehicles and alternative fuel models. By deploying 15,000 alternative-fuel vehicles by 2019, AT&T hopes to save 49 million gallons of gas and reduce emissions by 211,000 metric tons.

In the meantime, it instituted a company-wide efficiency policy to minimize idling, fast accelerations and hard braking.

In the past two years, AT&T has also instituted recycling and efficiency programs to benefit the environment. Its ubiquitous phone books – 173 million of them – are recyclable. By the end of 2011, AT&T hopes to recycle at least 14 million cell phones and other wireless devices, keeping an estimated 920 tons of e-waste out of landfills.

“Developed in 2008, AT&T’s internal energy policy was established to guide energy management actions and drive efficient, cost-effective and environmentally responsible use of energy in AT&T’s operations,” the company said in a 2009 white paper identifying the company’s green practices.

Indeed, some of AT&T’s new policies are evident on store shelves.

Last year, AT&T reinvented the standards for new wireless devices it sells, with an emphasis on environmental requirements. By the end of 2011, suppliers will need to reduce packaging and 75 percent of new devices must be at least 65 percent recyclable. Most new phones will be outfitted to use a new energy-efficient charger.

“We have been working closely with our device manufacturers to establish environmentally friendly manufacturing standards that can be implemented now,” said Jeff Bradley, senior vice president, Devices, AT&T in a news release. By reducing packaging, the company hopes to save more than 200 tons of wasted plastic and paper from the landfill this year. AT&T is encouraging customers to choose paperless billing and pledged to plant a tree for each customer who does so.

“These improvements are sound business decisions, but more importantly, they significantly reduce the impact of this packaging on the environment,” Bradley said in the release. 

For more on AT&T and the environment, please check out the Go Green section of the company's website.

Editor's note: AT&T is a MNN.com sponsor.

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Is AT&T eco-friendly?