Comcast's Coblitz: Plan Now For Energy Efficiency, Or Else

The cable industry must change the way it thinks about power consumption now -- starting with how equipment and services are designed -- or face a future in which their electricity needs outrun the supply, according to Mark Coblitz, Comcast's senior vice president of strategic planning.

Coblitz, speaking at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers' Smart Energy Management Initiative Forum here Thursday, said focusing on long-range energy efficiency will ensure sustainable growth and contain costs as costs per kilowatt continue to rise.

"As we project consumer demand for our services in the future, we see an impending risk several years down the road -- the possibility that, without taking some important steps, we cannot always be assured of a sufficient and reliable supply of locally available power," Coblitz said.

Within the next five to ten years, Comcast "will be faced with the reality that our ability to grow will be constrained by the quantity and timing of obtaining electrical power," he said. "We simply do not have control over the availability of the energy we will need to sustain our rapid future growth."

The cable industry has become "one of the lightning rods in debates about managing in-home energy consumption," Coblitz said. He was alluding to a June 2011 report from advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council, which claimed that cable and satellite set-top boxes consumed approximately 27 billion kilowatts in 2010 -- equivalent to the output of nine coal-fired power plants.

Unlike Internet content providers such as Google or Apple, MSOs operate local broadband networks, which require the availability of sufficient energy to power each local headend, hub, node and amplifier at the neighborhood level.

For Comcast, increasing demand for broadband in particular has driven up energy requirements. Over the past decade, Comcast has seen annual growth rates of Internet usage topping 40%. That's led the MSO to install more than 3,000 physical servers in more than a dozen data centers in 2011 alone, according to Coblitz.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of Internet-connected devices -- including TVs, tablets, smartphones and game consoles -- promises to keep pushing broadband consumption higher. In addition, cable operators are adding more commercial services customers, putting further demands on data center power.

Already, Comcast had encountered situations in which local energy is not reliably keeping pace with the demands of its growing networks. Coblitz said in one city (which he didn't identify) the local power company couldn't deliver enough electricity to a data center location, resulting in delays and forcing Comcast to put "hundreds of physical and virtual servers in suboptimal locations."

Comcast and other cable operators are migrating toward delivering video services over Internet protocol networks, with a growing number of services hosted in "the cloud."

That has the potential to cut household energy usage by, for example, moving digital video recording into the network. "But while the network DVR is more efficient than millions of in-home devices, it also implies some transfer of energy consumption from the home power supply to our networks," Coblitz noted.

The design of network-based services has a huge bearing on overall energy consumption, he said. For example, Cablevision Systems' Remote Storage DVR service, for legal reasons after a copyright challenge from content owners, requires a separate copy of each program subscribers want to record.

That's grossly inefficient, according to Coblitz. He estimated that if the entire cable industry served 30 million set-tops or connected devices with an RS-DVR system, that would require about 300 megawatts of power. By contrast, a network DVR supporting as many as 2 million different titles that keeps one copy of a TV show for multiple users eats up just 5 megawatts.

"The difference in energy consumption between the network DVR strategy versus Remote Storage DVR is fully one-third of the output of a nuclear plant," Coblitz said.

To be sure, cable operators have made "some enormous strides in energy savings," Coblitz said, in both electricity consumption and more efficient cooling methods. For example, Comcast's newest data center, in Chicago, uses ambient air for cooling 70% of the time.

And vendors are heeding the industry's call. Broadcom this week introduced two new system-on-chip solutions -- one for gateways and the other for HD digital terminal adapters -- that can reduce energy consumption up to 65% over a 24-hour period with power-management features that put the devices into "stand-by" mode when they're not being actively used.

Cutting in-home energy consumption of customer premises equipment, Coblitz said, "will allow operators to recognize measurable savings in equipment cost and maintenance."

Coblitz likened the industry's need to plan for energy efficiency to the way it has prepared for the years-long transition to the next-generation Internet protocol, IPv6. CableLabs made IPv6 a mandatory part of the first release of the DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem spec, and Comcast and others specified IPv6 in products they bought and also invested in training their engineering and operations teams.

"Now it is time to take the long view about energy," he said.

The entire industry -- including cable operators, vendors, programmers, broadcasters, CableLabs, SCTE, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and others -- must all consider power consumption as an up-front consideration in the earliest planning and design phases, Coblitz said.

"We need to move energy considerations to the front ranks of our industry's concerns," he said. "We must give consideration to the efficiency, availability and reliability of energy throughout the network and product-planning process, right from the design phase."

Coblitz was introduced by SCTE president and CEO Mark Dzuban, who noted that the association has adopted energy-efficiency measures at its Exton, Pa., headquarters. "We have to eat our own dog food," Dzuban said.

SCTE said almost 160 people registered for the SEMI Forum event.