Industries, Feds Pushing STB Energy Efficiency

Set-Top Energy Update Ongoing efforts to reduce the energy consumption of set-top boxes and other in-home devices are something of a rarity: Everyone - the government, the cable industry, satellite and telephone providers, consumer electronics companies and environmental groups - is pulling in the same direction. There even is agreement on how to achieve the goals. The only thing that seems to set the sectors apart is timing. And even this is not turning out to be too much of an issue. 

A big step was taken late last year. On Dec. 23, a number of groups - including the Consumer Electronics Association and the NCTA - announced a voluntary agreement under which STB energy efficiency will improve by 10% to 45%by 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Consumer electricity bills will be trimmed by more than $1 billion annually, the release said. The voluntary agreement will impact equipment in more than 90 million homes. 

Energy Star has been providing specifications for STBs since 2008, though it has not had the force of law. The voluntary agreement - almost universally referred to as “the VA” - is an effort to co-opt the Energy Star standards and avoid regulation. Version 3 of the standard has been in effect since 2011. The latest version - version 4.1 - is scheduled to go into effect on Dec. 19. 

Theoretically, using Energy Star as the basis for the VA means that there should be no need for regulation. After all, all the major stakeholders have signed onto the plan - an earlier version lacked the agreement of the efficiency advocates, who question the strength of the verification mechanisms - and the major elements mandated by the EPA are present. 

A voluntary agreement, however, is fundamentally different than regulation, even if the numbers are the same. Katharine Kaplan, the manager of Energy Star product development and program administration, said the VA lacks the certification procedures that are part of a mandated program. She added that the cable industry is not the most enthusiastic participant - at least officially - because it doesn’t want to be constrained to a specific path forward. “The fact is that they don’t have a tremendous amount of certainly about the roadmap, so they are reluctant to sign an agreement with us.” 

What really matters, though, is what the industry does. While it is reluctant to lock itself into the VA because of the fear that it loses flexibility going forward, cable operators are enthusiastic backers of the energy levels created by Energy Star and included in the VA. Kaplan said 92% of all STBs - cable, telco and satellite - meet version 3 or 4 of the standard. Simple math suggests that cable operators - and the vendors who take their marching orders - are on board. “It is pretty clear that if 92% of STBs [meet the Energy Star requirements], the big cable operators are using our specs.” 

Paul Glist, an outside counsel to the NCTA and its representative to the Voluntary Agreement Steering Committee, said participation in the VA is ahead of schedule. For instance, he said, more than 30% of DVR STBs now being deployed are more energy efficient than those distributed in 2012. The figure is just under 30% for non-DVR STBs, said Glist. “We are meeting that in a way that is far earlier [than required under] the regulatory models,” he said. 

The way in which energy savings are accomplished is evolving. It is a tug of war between power saving techniques and new demands. Gary Dorfner, the senior product manager for ARRIS’ CPE business, said the migration from the need to support analog and digital formats to digital-only and the ever deeper integration of circuitry both cut energy requirements. However, those reductions are counterbalanced by the additional tasks that STBs are called upon to perform. “It is difficult to say which side wins,” Dorfner said. 

At a deeper level, the amount of energy a STB can save depends upon the cleverness of strategies aimed at powering down different elements when they are not in use. It is a tricky business, but one with a tremendous upside. Emailed comments from Cisco point to a “ ‘light sleep’ ” mode that spins down the hard drives when not in use and energy efficient "whole-home" DVR solutions as an alternative to multiple in-home DVRs.

However, careful planning is necessary to ensure that the device is awake when updates are sent and can come “back to life” in time to serve subscribers with no interruption. In other words, a scenario in which it takes 3 minutes for the DVR to power up and present content is not viable. “It’s not just a question of on or off,” Dorfner said. “It may be a question of on, low power mode 1, low power mode 2, and off.”

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