Cable operators serving 85% of all subscribers say today that by the end of 2013 at least 90% of the new set-top boxes they buy and deploy will meet Energy Star 3.0 standards. For example, many will be able to sleep when they aren’t being used — most now don’t, which earned them the nickname “energy vampires” after the National Resources Defense Council released an eye-opening report in June that said the nation’s 160M set top boxes consumed about 27B kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2010. That cost consumers $3B annually, using enough power to serve all of the homes in Maryland for a year, the activist group said.

While it’s nice to see the cable industry do something about the problem, the new initiative is no hardship. Most major operators are reluctantly begining to acknowledge that they can’t keep their grip on the set-top box business that has given them so much control over the viewing experience. The federal government is pressing to implement new transmission standards that would make it easier for companies including Apple, Google, Sony and TiVo to sell gadgets that consumers can buy to replace the clunky cable box. Operators also are exploring the idea of using Internet protocals to transmit programming and ensure that it only goes to paid subscribers. For example, Time Warner Cable is working with Samsung and Sony on a Web-enabled TV that wouldn’t need a cable box.

Here’s today’s release from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association:

Washington, D.C. and Louisville, CO – The U.S. cable industry today announced a new initiative dedicated to improving the energy efficiency of consumer set-top boxes and other devices and developing advanced cable-enabled services designed to promote innovative consumer energy conservation measures. A key element of the initiative is the “CableLabs® – Energy Lab,” a new facility within the cable industry’s R&D consortium that will concentrate exclusively on improving energy efficiency, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) and CableLabs® announced today.

The energy initiative will promote the development, testing, and deployment of technologies that will enable cable subscribers to reduce and manage energy consumption in the home, including establishing new requirements for both cable video devices and network support systems. Among other things, these specifications will enable the manufacturing of devices that have “sleep” capabilities to reduce power consumption when subscribers are not actively watching television. After successful field testing of set-top boxes with next generation power management semiconductors, cable operators will begin promoting the deployment of these devices as part of their ongoing efforts to provide functional, reliable and energy efficient services.

The resulting increased energy efficiency for new model set-top boxes will improve on the strides in recent years by cable operators to utilize devices with dramatically lower energy consumption than previous generations of equipment. In addition, cable operators providing service to approximately 85 percent of U.S. cable customers have committed to ensure that by the end of 2013 at least 90 percent of all new set-top boxes they purchase and deploy will be ENERGY STAR 3.0 devices.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) – who in a September letter to cable and other video providers challenged the industry to develop more energy efficient devices – applauded the initiative: “I am pleased the cable industry was responsive to my request that it work on deploying energy efficient cable boxes,” said Feinstein. “I plan to monitor the progress of this initiative closely. Moving toward cable boxes with ‘light-sleep’ and ‘deep-sleep’ technology is an important victory for American consumers who stand to save substantially on their utility bills.”

“This important energy initiative will build upon the industry’s exemplary record of improving the energy efficiency of successive generations of video devices and services without government intervention, and more importantly it will chart our energy conservation course for the future,” said Michael Powell, NCTA President & CEO. “In the hyper-competitive video marketplace, delivering fully functional, reliable and energy efficient equipment is critical to our industry’s success, and it’s good for consumers. Offering energy efficient devices builds on the cable’s industry’s imperative to deliver innovation throughout our entire consumer offering.”

The CableLabs® – Energy Lab will leverage the expertise and capabilities of CableLabs to build industry consensus on projects that will enhance current energy conservation efforts. The CableLabs® – Energy Lab will:

• Design and maintain a consistent and accurate energy tracking program for measuring and reporting energy consumption and efficiency improvements of new set-top boxes. Procedures for testing and advancing the energy efficiency of set-top boxes and energy conserving software will also be established.
• Serve as a testing and development facility for designers of energy efficient software and hardware.
• Create energy efficiency specifications for semiconductor and hardware suppliers and the network operations systems that support cable devices.
• Assist in developing applications and products that will help consumers manage their overall residential energy consumption.
• Showcase and demonstrate current and future energy savings products and power monitoring capabilities.

“CableLabs is pleased to play a central role in the cable industry’s new energy conservation initiatives. The CableLabs – Energy Lab demonstrates how the cable industry recognizes its opportunity to reduce the energy consumption of devices that our customers use to access cable services, and takes full advantage of cable technology to enable consumers to manage energy consumption throughout the home.” said Paul Liao, CableLabs President & CEO.

The CableLabs® – Energy Lab initiative will develop collaborative projects with universities and other innovators to promote and showcase the latest in energy management technologies that are enabled by high-speed cable networks, and it is expected to be fully functional by the first quarter of 2012.

Cable operators and other multichannel video providers purchase and maintain tens of millions of video devices that are used in consumer homes. Today’s fully functional interactive set-top boxes are mini-computers that work as highly integrated components of complex networks. While consumer demand for interactive video services has fueled the need for increasingly sophisticated and more powerful devices, the cable industry has both improved the energy efficiency of set-top boxes and launched new methods of delivering cable services using network-based, cloud-based, and IP-based approaches that revolutionize set-top boxes or eliminate them entirely.

Some of the cable industry’s efforts to improve energy efficiency include:

• The vast majority of the set-top boxes purchased by cable operators are ENERGY STAR qualified, as evidenced by recent deployments of the two largest cable operators. In the first quarter of 2011, 95 percent of Comcast’s deployments and 100 percent of Time Warner Cable’s devices were ENERGY STAR devices.
• Utilization of ENERGY STAR 3.0-qualified high-definition DVRs that consume less than half of the energy but provide more processing power and home-networking capabilities than the 40+ Watt HD DVRs introduced ten years ago.
• In cable markets that have converted to all digital systems, operators are providing customers with small digital transport adapters (DTAs) that use less than four Watts.
• Introduction of new services that decrease the home’s overall energy profile such as: digital-only tuners; home networking and whole-home DVR; network- and cloud-based delivery that allows the processing and storage power of the network to be shared across many consumers; and video services delivered via Internet Protocol (IP) directly to tablets and gaming stations without the need for a set-top box.

NCTA and CableLabs will also continue to collaborate with government, industry, and research organizations to develop approaches and share best practices which can lead to further energy improvements.

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