Mixed Signals

CalPlug 2012: Looking Entirely Differently at Electricity and Set-top Boxes

3/03/2012 7:06 AM

A handful of weeks ago, I was asked to serve on an “expert panel” at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) covering the topic of America’s set-top pay TV boxes (STBs).

The event was called “CalPlug,” this iteration focused almost primarily on the topic of saving and using less electrical energy in the hundreds of millions of STBs that frequent, indeed, proliferate within the 115 mil. U.S. Television Households (USTVHs) (I think I can say “proliferate” because the average U.S. (Pay) TV Household (U.S. TVHH) has more than two STBs).

A rather odd topic among today’s telecom issues, CalPlug talked about saving something that is important to everyone, but that I’ve never before heard talked about in this context.

And it is important, at least for the time being. That is because the new STBs are getting bigger and more capable and actually, as a group, are using more and more electricity, especially as those STBs get put beside more and more TVs, in more and more rooms and places, and those STBs add more and more features. EchoStar’s newly-announced “Hopper” STB and its affiliated “Joey” side-car STBs, are examples of this trend. The “Hopper” features a 2-Terrabyte harddrive, and a recording feature that captures nightly three hours each of each primetime network’s fare, and uses a separate tuner to save that content for a week on the harddrive (I expect EchoStar and its pay TV cable and telco brethren to make additional ventures forward in this regard, build more and more capable STBs that do more and more amazing things, including “Whole Home-” and “TV Everywhere”-type solutions.)

Indeed, in the past, I think it’s fair to say that I, like most people, just took my STBs and the electrical power needed for granted. It was actually a non-issue.

In the future, I do not see it that way.

For one reason, it is arguable that there is a subtle, yet growing possibility that STB alternatives like Cablevision’s Remote Storage-Digital Video Recorder (RS-DVR) will obviate the need for an in-home DVR. Instead, only a cable will be placed into a TV monitor, and that cable into the monitor will carry the signal from a server located elsewhere. Thus, no additional STB nor electricity will be required in many of the individual cabled homes of the future. And it is likely that a mass pay TV provider like Cablevision will be able to build those remote servers so that they use much less electricity than those serving the same number of STBs in individual TVHHs.

Another reason I will no longer take the electricity needs for in-home STBs for granted is because the issue is now on the table in the nations’ largest pay TV state, both population and percentage size wise, and we Californians have a way of sticking with important messages that have tangible solutions. As Enron showed us a decade or so ago, Californians care about their electricity, and are likely to keep doing things about it. I’m predicting that there are a lot of other people in other states who care about their electricity, as well.

Further, CalPlug was important (and will matter) because there were high-level executives at CalPlug, representing both EchoStar’s Dish and DirecTV, as well as the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), many top-level well known private firms such as Motorola and Broadcom, CableLabs, and the telcos.

Which brings us to the CalPlus solution (at least for the short and mid-terms): build STBs in the future that use less electricity. If it is important, panel after panel at the CalPlug event concluded that it can be done. G.P. Li, CalPlug’s interim director, is also the director of the U.C. Irvine division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) (and a former director of the technology group at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center). From the UCI CalPlug website, Dr. Li and his team summarizes at http://calplug.uci.edu/:

Ubiquitous plug-load devices include appliances, electronics and tools-anything that plugs into an electrical outlet. Currently, these devices are responsible for as much as 20 percent of the electrical consumption in buildings, and 30 percent by 2030.

To exacerbate the situation, a majority of these devices consume power even when not in use-the much dreaded “phantom power” which accounts for over 15 gigawatts of power consumption, worldwide, 24/7. The plug loads, if not well managed, could disable California’s plans for Zero Net Energy in new homes by 2020.

The California Plug Load Research Center (CalPlug) was established to improve energy efficiency in the use and design of appliances and consumer electronic devices. CalPlug recently earned funding support from the California Energy  Commission, for $1 million. CalPlug focuses on energy efficiency solutions, efficiency evaluations of consumer electronics, standards development, education and public outreach, and user behavior studies. CalPlug will address challenges in plug load efficiency for both residential and commercial buildings by collaborating closely with utilities, manufacturers, advocacy groups, research institutions, and energy policy makers.

CalPlug’s innovation extends beyond the research labs and reaches out to industry, commerce and government. Business collaborations and studies of user behavior are essential to plug-load energy conservation, as is consumer education. Through collaborations with research institutes and manufacturers, the center will assist in developing future appliance efficiency standards and incentives for manufacturers and retailers.”

Jimmy Schaeffler is chairman and CSO of Carmel-by-the-Sea-based consultancy The Carmel Group (www.carmelgroup.com).