PhD student, Heqing Huang worked with BT on a project entitled “Managing network use to minimize energy use”

The first reason I wished to work with this partner and on this project in particular is that BT is a large corporation in the UK and one of the leaders in the telecommunication sector. Working for BT as a fellow would be an excellent opportunity to build up my CV while gaining work experience in a non-academic setting.

The second reason is due to my background match. I served as the MCR Green Officer at my College for two years, which helped me develop an interest in sustainability issues. As the Green Officer, I led and completed multiple sustainability projects, and it is only natural that I chose this fellowship project based on what I had done co-curricular.
I was given the opportunity to attend events within the company like research talks would help enrich the fellowship experience. Through talks, I could learn about what research they are working on, and what the corporate culture/vibe is like.

I worked in a corporate environment in China before, but not in the UK. Given the pandemic situation, I suppose it was pretty easy to switch from working from home on my PhD to working from home on the fellowship .

However, the most challenging part of the fellowship was at the beginning when my BT supervisor and I were trying to walk through the technical aspects of the project together. We were from different disciplines, and our skillsets were quite different as well. We took some time to go over the whole project together to make sure we understood each other and were on the same page. This process took almost 3 to 4 weeks. As we were structuring the project together in the exploratory/brainstorming stage, I started to work independently on the literature study and prepared for my interviews. I started the research process without much difficulty because it was quite straightforward, and I had more or less understood what the research project entailed.

Before this fellowship , I had worked on multiple student projects with people from different backgrounds. The researchers at BT were all very easy-going and willing to contribute their expertise to help me through this. Therefore, I got along with them quite well and I really enjoyed learning from their experience.

The purpose of the research is to contextualise and qualify some more impactful opportunities for future research and identify what would be more useful, if we were to tackle the carbon emission driven by network use.

My exploratory study is about managing peak traffic growth to minimise energy use and the network’s carbon footprint, specifically looking at the impact of video streaming.

Research questions included:
a) What are the options (and who is involved) for managing network use, controlling the growth of the peak, and minimising energy use of the network?
b) To what extent is this change best delivered through our business, the end-users, or government and policy?
c) What are the options for affecting behaviours?
d) Which approach(es) is likely to be most effective?

The relevance of findings in the telecommunications sector is assessed through a literature study supplemented by expert interviews. Instead of going through the technical details on how to control network use, this project focuses on how the socio-economic aspects of this problem should work together to achieve real change.

My fellowship did meet the aims of the study. As the project progressed, we understood that contextualising and qualifying the real opportunity for future research while identifying what would be truly useful is hugely underrated. We needed to find out what would and would not be feasible. We went through multiple case studies and an extensive literature review. After that, we ruled out several options that had already been done to reduce the network’s carbon footprint while identifying other opportunities that would have more significant potential and could be more effective.


1. What is driving data traffic growth on the network? From the perspective of network providers: the more network providers increase the bandwidth; the more content providers demand it. From the standpoint of content providers, the migration from tv/radio to online streaming, the provision of higher definition services, and the expansion of the customer base had all driven traffic growth.

2. Collaboration of regulators, content providers, and network providers would be more effective than solely working on changing end-users’ behaviour.

3. Challenges that we face to build this collaboration include a) the scope of internet energy and its carbon footprint is still unclear, and there has not yet been consensus on how to calculate it scientifically. b) the profit-driven nature of companies versus climate change and corporate social responsibilities.

The added value of completing this fellowship includes stepping out of my comfort zone and exploring realms that I am less familiar with would be a huge takeaway from this fellowship . I major in Sociology, and the PhD project I am working on is far from technical. At the start of the fellowship , I had to fully open my senses, trying to understand how the researchers from BT explained the project and how those research questions came about. Then I had to work independently, explore relevant literature, try to learn and understand the technical aspects of the research while coming up with a research plan. This turned out to be challenging initially, but I am glad that I coped in the end.

Another takeaway was the final presentation to colleagues at BT and the director of Cambridge Grand Challenges. I do not have many opportunities to do presentations for my other work. This project presentation turned out to be an excellent opportunity to practise my presentation skills. In retrospect, I learned that preparation is critical. Designing the transition between slides and how to interact with the audience would help the presentation flow better. Last but not least, stay calm.

I gained work experience from this fellowship . I expanded my network because I got in touch with researchers not just at BT, but also at BBC and the University of Bristol. I was involved in a sustainability project which may open up more opportunities for my future career.

The transferrable skills and experiences I gained from working with the partner organization: 

1. Strengthened my research skills and the capability of managing a project independently.

2. Became more versatile and learned to work in a different realm/work with people from different backgrounds.

3. Practised my presentation skills and learned that preparation and composure are the keys.

There was no specific ‘training’ involved because of the remote working situation, and I was already familiar with the key skills needed for this project (literature study and interviewing). However, I got invited to hear some of BT’s regular talks on their research, which was very interesting. It enriched the fellowship experience. Also, by having regular meetings with different researchers at BT, I learned from different perspectives. This makes the whole journey eye-opening.
My qualitative research skills were very helpful in the fellowship . As I was trained as a qualitative researcher, I could gather information from literature study quite efficiently, and I was comfortable preparing for interviews and chatting with people in-depth.

I also honed my interpersonal skills during the fellowship . Sometimes we had meetings with multiple people from different institutions. When there was a gap/silence, I could come up with something and help move the conversation forward. My experience and day-to-day life as a Cambridge student might became good entertainment for them in the middle of a workday. I remembered talking to one of the researchers at BT on and on about rowing because through his nephew (if I remember correctly), he happened to know Cambridge well.

Advise I would give future fellows:

1. Apply for projects that you are genuinely interested in. Your interest would motivate you during the project and help you get through the rough patches if you hit them.

2. Utilise this opportunity to build up your network. You may not just be working with people from the company that you apply for, but also collaborators from other institutions.

3. Do preparations before starting the fellowship , especially if you are not from a relevant field. Understand their language first.

I would totally recommend this programme to other students who are also studying social sciences.

Heqing Huang completed her fellowship with BT from 21 June 2021-20 September 2021

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