On Making Set-Tops Use Less Power

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And now this, from the Department of Every Little Bit Counts: The United States currently produces about 81% of its own energy, up from 70% in 2005, according to a piece in last Monday’s All Things D.

How did that happen? More domestic oil production, more efficient cars, stricter mileage standards … and, all across the consumer electronics world, a renewed resolve about sleep modes and other ways to let our gadgets spin down when we’re not using them (and too lazy or paranoid to power them down.)

Which brings us to set-top boxes, Energy Star activities, and the push to make all in-home CPE (tech talk for “consumer premises equipment”) more mindful and efficient about power draw.

This is indeed happening, at least on cable boxes. The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), which hosts its next “SEMI” (”Smart Energy Management Initiative”) this Thursday (March 15), is working on all such matters; CableLabs is perhaps most active on the CPE front, with an active lab and task force to test, measure and track energy efficiencies.

The latest version (3.0) of the voluntary Energy Star requirements, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency with a deadline of September 2011, ask for set-tops to use less (15%) power (or drop 3 watts, whichever is greater) while in “on” mode, and for a “deep sleep” mode to kick in, just as your computers do after a while.

Note: While this is all happening, in labs and engine rooms, it’s tricky. Why? Three reasons. One: Set-tops live for a long time. Building in power efficiency is a going-forward thing, for the most part, just like every other feature you wish you could cram into set-tops.

Remember the one about “non-responders”? (More here: http://bit.ly/AbaXWP) Boxes that get wired into the electrical outlet tied to the light switch. Turn out the light, turn off the box. Sounds great from a power draw perspective, right? But. Those powered-off boxes instantly become “non-responders” to the network serving them - bricks, essentially, until powered back on.

Then there’s the matter of operations. When do updates get shipped out to set-tops? In the middle of the night, of course, to minimize service disruptions. And when they wake up? If you’ve ever unplugged your DVR, you know about the wait that ensues while guide data gets reloaded.

These are the issues your engineering pals are facing, as they figure out ways to make set-tops better energy partners. They will get it done. Wish them luck regardless.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at translation-please.com or multichannel.com/blog.

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