Energy Department Seeks Non-Regulatory Solution For Set-Top Power Standards

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The U.S. Department of Energy will hold off on issuing proposed regulations on set-top boxes, to instead let pay-TV operators and "energy-efficiency advocates" develop an agreement on improving the efficiency of set-tops.

"If successful, a non-regulatory agreement could become effective quickly," the DOE said in a notice posted to its website Thursday. The agency added, however, that it will undertake analysis in preparation for a regulatory standard in the event a private agreement cannot be reached or to cover any class of set-top boxes not covered by a non-regulatory agreement.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, which has opposed government intervention on the issue, praised the decision.

"This is great news from the Department of Energy and recognizes that an industry agreement could be more effective and implemented more quickly than a rulemaking," NCTA vice president and general counsel Neal Goldberg said in a statement. "We'll continue our efforts to work closely with the energy advocates and industry to forge a solution that accomplishes our shared vision of improving the energy efficiency of set-top boxes while continuing to provide best-in-class service to consumers."

In December 2011, the DOE issued a request for information about how and whether it should regulate operator-supplied set-top boxes and network equipment to be more energy-efficient. The NCTA, in comments filed with DOE in March, said the cable industry is already deploying more power-efficient devices and argued that any government mandates would actually hurt those efforts.

The DOE on July 5 said it will suspend issuance of a proposed rule for set-tops until after Oct. 1, 2012. "DOE will provide technical support to ensure that any non-regulatory agreement sufficiently addresses the public interest in improving set-top box energy efficiency," the agency said, adding that it will also "continue testing and evaluating the energy efficiency of set-top boxes in support of developing a DOE test procedure."

Last fall, responding to the issue of set-top power consumption, CableLabs established an Energy Lab at its Louisville, Colo., headquarters that will promote development, testing and deployment of technologies to let MSOs and their subscribers reduce and manage energy consumption in the home.

NCTA said the CableLabs - Energy Lab is now working on "deep sleep" solutions that will use even less power, while still meeting subscriber expectations for instant TV viewing. Set-top boxes with this functionality will be ready for field tests in 2014, the group said.

According to the NCTA, cable operators are deploying set-top boxes with "light sleep" capabilities that reduce energy consumption when they are not in active use, a feature the trade group projected will save 350 million kilowatt hours in the first year alone. In addition, lower-power digital transport adapters (DTAs) are saving 2 billion kWh annually, according to the NCTA.

Set-top power consumption became a political and regulatory issue after advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council released a report in June 2011 claiming that cable and satellite set-top boxes consumed approximately 27 billion kilowatts in 2010 -- equivalent to the output of nine coal-fired power plants. The NRDC report concluded that the cost to power DVRs and set-tops will increase $3.5 billion per year by 2020 without more energy-efficient set-top and DVR designs.

The NCTA has said the NRDC report was based on set-tops in use as of early 2010 and that industry has since introduced more energy-efficient devices. Further, the trade group said, the report overstated the role of the set-top box in overall household energy use, adding that the total energy in use by set-top boxes "is dwarfed by virtually everything else in the home, such as heating, air conditioning and appliances."

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