NCTA, CableLabs Want Set-Tops To Suck Less Power

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The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and CableLabs have kicked off an initiative aimed at improving the energy efficiency of set-top boxes and other operator-supplied devices.

The focal point of project will be the CableLabs - Energy Lab, a new facility housed at the R&D consortium's 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. As part of that, CableLabs will create energy-consumption specifications for cable gear.

In addition, the six biggest U.S. cable operators -- which provide service to approximately 85% of U.S. cable customers -- have committed to ensure that by the end of 2013 at least 90% of all new set-top boxes they purchase and deploy will meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star 3.0 guidelines for energy usage. The top six MSOs are Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems and Bright House Networks.

Pay-TV operators came under fire in a June 2011 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental activist group, which found that one HD DVR and one HD set-top together can suck up more energy per year (446 kilowatt hours) than a 21-cubic-foot Energy Star-compliant refrigerator (415 kilowatt hours).

"The electricity required to operate all U.S. [set-top] boxes is equal to the annual household electricity consumption of the entire state of Maryland, results in 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and costs households more than $3 billion each year," the NRDC said in the report.

Responding to concerns that the cable industry should provide greener solutions, CableLabs and NCTA are planning to establish new requirements for both cable video devices and network support systems. Among other things, the specs will enable devices that with "sleep" capabilities to reduce power consumption when subscribers aren't watching TV.

The CableLabs - Energy Lab initiative will develop collaborative projects with universities and others to promote and showcase the latest in energy management technologies that are enabled by high-speed cable networks, and it is expected to be fully functional by the first quarter of 2012.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- who sent a letter in September to cable and other video providers challenging them to develop more energy-efficient devices -- weighed in with support for the cable initiative. "I am pleased the cable industry was responsive to my request that it work on deploying energy efficient cable boxes," Feinstein said in a statement. "I plan to monitor the progress of this initiative closely. Moving toward cable boxes with ‘light-sleep' and ‘deep-sleep' technology is an important victory for American consumers who stand to save substantially on their utility bills."

The CableLabs - Energy Lab will design and maintain a "consistent and accurate" energy-tracking program for measuring and reporting energy consumption and efficiency improvements of new set-top boxes, as well as create energy-efficiency specifications for semiconductor and hardware suppliers and the network-operations systems that support cable devices. The consortium also will establish procedures for testing and advancing the energy efficiency of set-top boxes and energy-conserving software. In addition, the facility will serve as a testing and development facility for designers of energy-efficient software and hardware.

"CableLabs is pleased to play a central role in the cable industry's new energy conservation initiatives," CableLabs president and CEO Paul Liao said in a statement. "The CableLabs - Energy Lab demonstrates how the cable industry recognizes its opportunity to reduce the energy consumption of devices that our customers use to access cable services, and takes full advantage of cable technology to enable consumers to manage energy consumption throughout the home."

After cable operators conduct field testing of set-top boxes with next-generation power management semiconductors, they will begin promoting their deployment, according to NCTA and CableLabs.

"This important energy initiative will build upon the industry's exemplary record of improving the energy efficiency of successive generations of video devices and services without government intervention, and more importantly it will chart our energy conservation course for the future," NCTA president and CEO Michael Powell said. "In the hyper-competitive video marketplace, delivering fully functional, reliable and energy efficient equipment is critical to our industry's success, and it's good for consumers. Offering energy efficient devices builds on the cable's industry's imperative to deliver innovation throughout our entire consumer offering."

NCTA and CableLabs said they also will continue to collaborate with government, industry and research organizations to develop approaches and share best practices which can lead to further energy improvements.

Separately, the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers last year launched the Smart Energy Management Initiative, which aims to help the cable industry provide better energy management solutions. "The steps being taken by NCTA and CableLabs align with key objectives of SCTE's Smart Energy Management Initiative," SCTE president and CEO Mark Dzuban said. "We look forward to providing the engineering and operations expertise, as well as the standards, that will help the industry and consumers to reduce energy consumption and costs."

The NCTA pointed to steps the cable industry has already taken steps to improve energy efficiency. The "vast majority" of the set-tops purchased by cable operators today are Energy Star qualified, according to the lobbying group. For example, in the first quarter of 2011, 95% of Comcast's deployments and 100% of Time Warner Cable's devices complied with the EPA's Energy Star requirements.

The Energy Star 3.0 specification will yield HD DVRs that consume less than half of the energy of previous-generation models -- which draw 40 watts or more -- while they also will provide more processing power and home-networking capabilities. NCTA also noted that some cable markets have converted to all-digital systems using low-cost digital terminal adapters (DTAs), which use less than 4 watts.

Over the longer term, the cable industry's move to IP-based video distribution, all-digital TV, multiroom DVR and network-based DVR promises to cut the power drain of set-top boxes even further. For example, AT&T's IP-based HD DVR uses 18 watts in "power on" mode and just 12 watts in "light sleep" state.