STBs Try to Become Energy Stars

People are energized by a good night’s sleep. However, nobody wants to be so far under that they don’t hear the baby cry or the smoke detector shriek. Set-top boxes also benefit from a good rest. The deeper the sleep, the less energy they use. This is good fo...

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People are energized by a good night’s sleep. However, nobody wants to be so far under that they don’t hear the baby cry or the smoke detector shriek.

Set-top boxes also benefit from a good rest. The deeper the sleep, the less energy they use. This is good for the environment and for subscribers’ wallets. The tradeoff is, however, that a totally unconscious STB is less available to be upgraded, serviced and otherwise participate in the 24/7 world of a cable operation. And, like humans, STBs waking from a deep sleep are groggy and take a bit longer to get going. This would violate the cardinal rule of cutting STB power, which is to leave the subscriber experience unaffected. So operators traditionally keep their STBs awake or close to it.

The nodding off vs. deep slumbering issue is one of the key elements of the ongoing dialog between the cable industry, other service providers, energy companies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program. The goal is to get service providers, including cable operators, onboard with the program, which can take a big slice – as much as 30% or more – out of the electricity STBs use.

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The Energy Star label is, of course, a familiar site on big-ticket appliances such as dishwashers and clothes dryers. The program wants to be more. “The EPA has been steadily increasing the scope of the Energy Star program,” Carol Ansley, senior director of intellectual property engineering at ARRIS [www.arrisi.com], says. “They are heading off in different directions, such as industrial design for buildings and things that are not strictly retail items, like set-top boxes.”

34 Energy Star STBs, and Counting

The STB program is well established. As of Nov. 2, the EPA said that there were 66 Energy Star-certified STBs available in four base functionality groups: cable, IP, satellite and terrestrial. The EPA has a fifth category, which is “thin client/remote,” but there apparently are no products yet available in this category.

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Cable is leading the pack with 34 STBs. There are 14 IP-compliant boxes, 17 satellite boxes and one terrestrial version (from LG). The cable STBs are from Cisco (ten STBs), Huawei (two), Motorola (five), Pace (nine), Panasonic (one), Samsung (five) and TiVo (two, both manufactured by Flextronix).

Energy Star is moving from qualifying to certifying STBs when a third-party testing program kicks off on Jan. 1. Currently, qualified STBs are being rolled out by DirecTv, Suddenlink, AT&T and EPB, a municipal provider. Verizon also has applied, reports Katharine Kaplan, team lead for Energy Star's Product Development [www.energystar.gov].

The low profile of cable operators in the Energy Star program doesn’t mean that they are not cutting energy use. Official Energy Star status – logo and all — only is allowed if the service provider and its vendor have signed onto Energy Star agreements. Operators can qualify for Energy Star status if half of boxes deployed in the calendar year or 25% of the entire box population are complaint, according to Kaplan.

The fact that no cable operators are officially onboard possibly may be attributed to the fact that service providers with less legacy gear, such as those using IP networks to deliver content, can more quickly meet every nuance of the Energy Star requirements, Kaplan says. In other words, many cable operators may be fulfilling Energy Star requirements, but not yet be in position to officially sign off on the agreement and slap the logo on the boxes. Some also may be waiting for the more finalized next version of Energy Star standard to be adopted.

STBs Aren’t Dishwashers

There are obvious differences between a STB and big home appliances in size and the amount of electricity they use. There also are more subtle differences that planners need to take into account when making the smaller devices Energy Star-compliant.

For one thing, appliances are bought by the consumer and are fully his or her responsibility. STBs, however, are generally leased. Operators retain a far greater level of control over, and responsibility for, their operation. On the operational level, a washer or dryer generally is spritzing or tumbling or is fully off. The network consciousness issue doesn’t exist.

That, and the great variety of tasks different STBs must accomplish, makes both creating metrics and actually cutting energy needs tricky, observers say. The EPA has eschewed a one-size-fits-all approach in favor of one in which different energy allotments are allowed for different types of STBs and the unique tasks each performs. Each of these subtotals is fed into a formula that determines usage during a 24-hour period. That figure is averaged over a 365-day year, and the result either passes or fails Energy Star muster.

The first element of the equation is an allotment for the basic operation of the STB, including the reception of the signals, conditional access and converting the signal to a format compatible with the end user device. The amount of allowed energy, measured in kilowatt hours per year, differs depending on what type of STB is being assessed. Satellite STBs get the highest budget at 70 kWh/year; terrestrial STBs get the least at 22 kWh/year. Cable’s STBs are allotted 35 kWh/year.

Tasks performed by higher functioning STBs – those supporting DOCSIS, DVR, HD, CableCARD, etc. – are given additional incremental allotments of energy. In all, there are 11 categories of additional functionality. DVRs are allotted the most at 45 kWh/year and multistream terrestrial IP functional and removable media players the least at 8 kWh/year each.

A Long Timeline

Implementing Energy Star for STBs hasn’t been an overnight task. Version 1.0 was sunset way back in 2005, Kaplan says. Version 2.0 went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009. A proposed revision – called Version 2.0, Tier 2 – was slated to go into effect in Spring 2011.

That isn’t going to happen, however. “We committed to revisiting Tier 2 before it went into effect,” Kaplan explains. “When we revisited the levels, we heard from all stakeholders that the levels were too stringent and they wouldn’t be able to meet them. We have revisited those and stepped back a bit from when had been proposed.” Version 2.0, Tier 2 has been superseded by Version 3, which will take effect next September. More details on Versions 3.0 and 4.0 – which may advocate replacement of all but one STB in a home with a thin client-type device – were slated to be made public Thanksgiving week.

The basic operations of STBs have been honed and tweaked over decades, and drastically cutting energy draws requires some fancy footwork. Ansley says that basic engineering – for instance, making the AC to DC conversions in the power supply more efficient – plays a role. Smart design also is a key. “You can have a chip that has a low power mode, but if you do not make use of it in the software, you may as well not have it there at all,” she says.

Sleep Time

Deepening the sleep cycle is the most promising area to cut energy demand, and is the most active element of the conversation between the cable industry and the EPA. The crux of the matter is that the EPA wants as little energy to be spent on devices that are not being used – i.e., a “deep sleep” state. Cable operators want to cut unnecessary usage as well – but must be comfortable that the boxes remain fully responsive and functional.

The sleep issues likely will be solved. The fact that Energy Star is a voluntary program likely will keep the situation from becoming adversarial. Moreover, the goal of creating more energy-efficient STBs is shared by all. The only question is how to get there.

That, all parties agree, is something to sleep on.

Carl Weinschenk is the features editor at BGR. Reach him at cweinsch@aol.com.
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