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Pay TV exploring next steps to reduce energy use from set-top boxes

Cable companies, providers of set-top boxes once viewed as energy vampires, have slashed the power usage of that hardware and are looking for more progress via their preferred path of industry agreements over government mandates.

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In 2012, facing the threat of regulation from the U.S. Department of Energy and California, members of the pay TV industry struck a voluntary agreement aimed at improving the energy efficiency of set-top boxes, the ubiquitous devices used to deliver cable and satellite service to home television sets. In the five years since the 2013 implementation of the agreement, set-top box energy consumption has declined 34%, according to recent research from independent auditor D+R International, with the energy saved over that time period being enough to power all homes in Los Angeles county with electricity for almost a year.

Tech policy experts argue such reductions would not have been achieved had federal regulators chosen to intervene, and the industry is set on keeping regulators appeased as set-top boxes have been a frequent target of regulation over the years. The industry's initial voluntary agreement expired at the end of 2017, but companies extended the agreement this year through 2022 and laid the foundation for even more rigorous energy efficiency levels in the future. Some analysts, however, note these future reductions will be harder to come by than the initial decreases, requiring operators to change their equipment architecture to put fewer boxes in the home. While video apps and streaming services are helping that trend, analysts say the set-top box is too important and performs too many functions to disappear entirely.

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Industry success

When the 2012 agreement was first struck, U.S. set-top boxes consumed 32 TWh of electricity each year, nearly equivalent to the annual power output of 11 typical 500 megawatt coal-run power plants, according to D+R International data. One DVR and one basic set-top box in a house used approximately the same annual electricity as one new refrigerator. By comparison, U.S. set-top boxes consumed 21 TWh of electricity in 2017. The energy savings achieved in the last five years, according to Doug Johnson, vice president of technology policy at the Consumer Technology Association, were largely possible because operators and manufacturers had enough flexibility to innovate around new services, such as cloud DVRs and whole-house delivery, without having to wait for regulators to act.

"In the time it would have taken just for the DOE regulations to take effect, we've saved 27.8 TWh of electricity," Johnson said, noting a DOE rulemaking, from start to finish to implementation, takes about five years. "So one big merit of the voluntary agreement is its ability to deliver energy savings, or emissions reductions, a lot faster than traditional regulation could."

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry praised the industry's agreement upon its renewal this year, saying, "Voluntary industry standards such as this are an effective alternative to government regulation."

Always on

The agreement — signed by Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc., Cox Communications Inc., Altice USA Inc.'s Cablevision Systems Corp., AT&T Inc.'s DIRECTV, DISH Network Corp., ARRIS International PLC, Technicolor, Verizon Communications Inc. and others — also allowed industry insiders to consider the specific needs and requirements of the set-top box market. In particular, one reason set-top boxes consume so much power is that they are always on, ready to record content or to provide programming at the push of a button.

"They have to stay constantly connected in order to maintain the level of security that's required on those devices," said Debbie Fitzgerald, director of technology policy and director of the energy efficiency program at CableLabs, a research and development consortium for the cable industry. She pointed to content encryption, parental controls and channel access as examples of these security functions.

"If they do go completely off the network for too long, you may actually need a service call to bring them back up," Fitzgerald said, noting this is especially true of older boxes that rely on traditional tuners. Newer boxes that rely on IP-based delivery are better able to power down into sleep mode.

This is one area where set-top boxes still have room for significant improvement, according to Noah Horowitz, senior scientist at the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council.

In an interview, Horowitz said the pay TV industry has made "good incremental progress" in reducing annual energy consumption, but noted, "These boxes are reasonably efficient when you are watching or recording a show, but use way too much energy when you think your box is off."

Horowitz said his group would like to see the operators, chipset makers and equipment manufacturers "roll up their sleeves" to develop a genuine low-power state that consumes very little power when not in use but still enables the box to wake back up quickly.

Consumer expectations

The pay TV industry has introduced a sleep mode for new and even legacy boxes, which typically results in a savings of at least 1 watt to 2 watts versus full power. For instance, starting in November 2017, new installations of Comcast's X1 boxes began defaulting to power saver mode after four hours of inactivity.

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Comcast X1 Power Saver mode
Source: Comcast Corp

But Mike Paxton, an analyst with Kagan, a research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence, noted most boxes still default to a "light sleep mode" as opposed to a "deep sleep mode" so they can be powered up quickly.

"Cable and satellite providers don't like that [deep] sleep mode because their customers don't like it," Paxton said, noting that customers will complain when they have to wait for their programming to come up. Because of this negative customer feedback, Paxton said chipset makers and manufacturers "are not getting heat from service providers" to enable a deep sleep mode.

While he sees the efficiency gains thus far as good news for the industry, Paxton said, "If we want to expand that by another 20%, then things need to change — everything from the chip-level product development to consumer behavior to the number of complaints a service provider like Comcast or Charter is willing to put up with from their customers who might have a delay in being able to access their programming guide or the recordings on their DVR."

Fewer boxes

Another solution to the set-top box energy problem is to reduce the number of boxes needed in the home, especially those boxes with DVRs built into the hardware. Fitzgerald noted the pay TV industry is moving toward newer architectures that include whole-home DVR service, where only one set-top box in the home has a built-in DVR; and cloud DVRs, where recording functionality is moved out of the home entirely. Whereas an average DVR set-top box consumes 142.9 kilowatt hours per year, a non-DVR set-top box consumes 90.8 kWh, according to the D+R audit. An average light-weight thin client box, which relies on the primary box or server for all its functionality, uses just 44.3 kWh.

The next step, according to Fitzgerald, may be to move away from the set-top box entirely as operators increasingly deliver programming through apps on smart TVs, Roku Inc. boxes, tablets and mobile phones. "When you are delivering everything over IP, maybe you don't even need a set-top box," Fitzgerald said.

D+R's audit found consumers used 103.0 million unique customer-owned devices — including smart TVs, streaming boxes and sticks, tablets, smartphones and personal computers — to access operators' video services via apps in 2017.

Paxton, though, is doubtful the pay TV industry will wholly move away from set-top boxes on its own.

"The set-top box in the home is not going to go away any time soon because that's a very important piece of real estate for service providers," he said. "It allows them to offer expanded services that keep customers from churning."