Power - the Right Amount of It - to the Set Tops

BTR_Feature_Art_Energy-11-4-13Since its earliest days, cable has been a powerhouse. From developing new ways of delivering video to becoming a voice and data provider of choice, the industry has exuded power. It's a business power, a technical power and a political power.

It’s a power in the home, as well - and that's the problem. The industry's traditional beachhead in the living room, the set-top box, tends to be a power glutton. After all, all those great services use a lot of juice.

The amount of power an operator uses in the home has been a concern for years. In a couple of months, an important step toward confronting the problem - and increasingly stringent state and federal regulations - will be taken when a voluntary set of rules governing power consumption by STBs takes effect.

The agreement was signed by Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, Cablevision, Bright House Networks, CenturyLink, DirecTV, DISH Network, AT&T, Verizon and several vendors. It sets a number of goals, some of which vary by service provider sector. All the service providers, however, promise that 90% of STBs purchased and deployed going forward will conform to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star 3.0 efficiency levels. (More on the agreement can be found at this link.)

The voluntary agreement is seen as a way to convince the EPA and the state of California, which is at the forefront of STB energy issues at the state level, to not regulate. In addition to a natural inclination to stay clear of the government, it is feared that the likeliest approach to such regulations will preclude the flexibility necessary in highly diversified and morphing modern home networks. Regulations are likely to focus on limits per box. The industry wants to focus on a budget for a home.

Modern networks divvy up functionality - and thus, the power needed to keep things moving. Establishing specific requirements for particular elements of that overall network makes regulations cumbersome, said Gary Langille, a staff engineer at EchoStar Corp. (NASDAQ:SATS) and a co-chair of the STB energy standards committee of the Consumer Electronics Association. "We are very hopeful that ... we can avoid being regulated," Langille said. "The big issue with regulation is that these products are changing so rapidly that the energy use has to be looked at from a whole-home perspective."

The Law of the Conservation of (STB) Energy

The task of reducing power consumption in a set-top is difficult to talk about in definite terms because what the device does is changing so drastically. Indeed, insiders talk with a bit of frustration about the need to reduce power consumption in STBs because the huge increase in what the devices do over time makes it in their minds a major victory that they can operate at the same power levels as a decade ago.

Thus, consumption in the home must be thought of in a couple of ways. It must be considered narrowly - cutting power used by the STB - and at the home local area network (LAN) level.

On the LAN level, demand can be reduced by simply taking chores out of the home. The best example is the replacement of in-home with network DVR, which is a huge gain at the home networking level.

Things are much more interesting in the home network itself. Experts say that a key advance in STB power utilization is chip design. "There are multiple avenues that we have to keep after to get to the end goal of energy reductions," said Carol Ansley, the director of IP engineering at ARRIS (NASDAQ:ARRS). "We are working with silicon providers - the SoC guys - who are aggressively going to new silicon geometries. These most of the time let us keep the same power envelope and have more features. Sometimes, there is better performance in features such as graphics - as well as a bump down in power consumption."

Providing flexibility is the key. In the past, systems on a chip (SoC) were binary. That saves a lot of energy, but creates challenges in waking systems up when they are needed. "Previous silicon was all on or all off," said CableLabs' CTO Ralph Brown. "The current generation of silicon has the ability to do power scaling," he said. "Power scaling ability - which comes out of the PC and server world - is about how to scale power on different components. If, for instance, the system isn't using video, [newer SoCs] will not use that circuitry."

This is a big deal, when played out over the myriad functions that an STB performs. "If you want to single out one big thing [in the world of STB power conservation], it is sleep mode or low power mode or whatever else you want to call it," said Michail Tsatsanis, the director of communications systems for Entropic (NASDAQ: ENTR ).

There are tremendous opportunities for energy savings - and tremendous new demands. For instance, the emergence for 4K and HEVC will heighten processing demands in the STB, Tsatsanis said. He sees issues on both sides of the STB, so to speak: The tasks it completes internally and its role as the communications quarterback with the other devices on the home network.

The cable industry has a lot of power. The key will be to use that power well - especially within the household.

Carl Weinschenk is the Senior Editor of Broadband Technology Report. Contact him at carlw@pennwell.com.

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