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Expanded Set-top Box Voluntary Agreement a Win for Service Providers and Consumers

By Debbie Fitzgerald, Principal Architect, CableLabs –

At the end of December, the U.S. Energy Department, along with representatives from the pay TV industry and energy efficiency advocates, announced that the Energy Department has endorsed the Set-top Box (STB) Energy Efficiency Voluntary Agreement and is terminating its plans to regulate STBs.  CableLabs supported the efforts that led up to this, and are actively helping the cable operators in the implementation of the voluntary agreement. Taking a market-driven approach to drive energy efficiency is a great win for consumers, operators, and innovation.

Why is this so important?  Let’s start with a bit of history.

How We Arrived Here

Back in 2011, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published a report claiming that set-top boxes in the home consume more energy than a refrigerator! Upon clarification, the claim turned out to be a bit misleading; nevertheless, the claim caught the attention of the regulators.

The U.S. Energy Department started down the path to regulate the energy consumption of STBs.    But proposed regulations would not go into effect until 5 years after the regulation became final, and would only apply to new STBs.

The problem with this is that we don’t even know what STBs will look like in five years.  The pay TV industry is making continuous improvements in their devices, as well as looking to combine services going forward.  Today the cable industry is deploying integrated devices that provide both high-speed data and phone service via cable.   Additional features such as home security monitoring, home energy management, and even health management can be added.  Regulations constraining the energy consumption of STBs also constrain innovation in this space.

Coming Together

Seeking an alternative, the major players in satellite, cable, and telecom came together in 2012 to form an unprecedented voluntary agreement wherein they would take it upon themselves to build, purchase and deploy more energy efficient STBs.  Working together, this solution addresses over 90 million pay TV households, which represents over 90% of the subscribers in the U.S.

But the first version of the VA did not have the support of the energy advocates, and therefore was not enough to get the Energy Department to terminate their regulatory process.  So the members of the VA and the energy advocates reconvened in 2013 and came up with a more aggressive set of energy targets that the advocates would endorse, and the advocates signed on to the voluntary agreement.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Energy Department endorsed the amended VA and publicly terminated their regulatory proceedings.   This is a win-win for everyone: service providers, advocates, regulators, and consumers!

This approach is significantly better than going down the regulatory path for many reasons.  It results in much faster adoption and deployment of energy efficient STBs – rather than waiting the 5 years for regulation to take effect, it goes into effect in 2014.  In addition, the cable operators are updating software on some of their existing STBs to reduce the energy consumption of devices already fielded, whereas regulation only applies to new devices.  The VA allows for new features and concepts, and thus does not stifle innovation and creativity.  The updated VA can be found here.

The Role of CableLabs

With expertise in the technical capabilities of cable STBs, and their corresponding power consumption, CableLabs played a significant role in the negotiations with the energy advocates and crafting the updated VA.  We have established the CableLabs Energy Lab, and are already supporting the cable signatories’ testing of their STBs in preparation for the first reporting period.

CableLabs is also factoring energy management into its specifications.  Most notable is the introduction of 1×1 mode into the DOCSIS 3.0 specification.  In this mode, the cable modem can convert from using multiple bonded channels to just one channel upstream and one channel downstream if the data rate is low, which can save energy.

CableLabs is committed to helping cable operators and manufacturers design and deploy more energy-efficient consumer premises equipment.  We have working groups that meet regularly with our members and vendors to address many energy management initiatives, including efforts on the international front. CableLabs is also hosting a website that contains energy consumption information related to STBs purchased by each cable signatory after January 1, 2014.

For more information contact Debbie Fitzgerald.

Debbie Fitzgerald is a Principal Architect in the Application Technologies R&D group at CableLabs.  She leads the Energy Management Program at CableLabs, working with cable operators and manufacturers to improve the energy efficiency of cable consumer premises equipment (CPE).