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Gearing Up Greener Goods

Keeping your TV shows fresh with a digital video recorder could be using as much power as chilling your OJ: Some high-definition DVRs use the same amount of electricity, on average, as a refrigerator.

DVRs are relatively power-hungry machines because they use hard-disk drives, of the kind that run personal computers, to record programs. If subscribers leave their DVRs on, the devices continue to actively record the current TV channel in case a viewer wants to back up the show a few minutes.

That means the “standby” mode for the typical DVR doesn't really reduce power consumption compared with regular operation, said James Field, director of technology and new initiatives for interactive TV company NDS Group.

“An HD DVR uses only about 70 watts, but that's 24 hours by 365 days,” he said.

Today, according to estimates by nonprofit advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), set-top boxes in the U.S. use $2 billion worth of electricity annually, which produces 15 million tons of carbon dioxide. (HDTVs, by the way, are also power pigs — sucking up as much as four times the juice than their standard-definition counterparts.)

To cut the DVR drain, NDS has developed set-top software to “spin down” boxes in the middle of the night, when it's less likely anyone's watching. This deep standby mode consumes less than 1 watt.

In March 2007, U.K. satellite provider BSkyB — which uses NDS's interactive program guide — began deploying the spin-down feature to 2 million HD set-tops. The feature monitors whether people are using their box between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. If the box hasn't been used for a period of two hours, an “auto standby” warning pops up on screen for 3 minutes; if nobody touches the remote, the box's hard disk stops spinning.

The key to the program: Subscribers don't necessarily even know their DVRs are putting themselves to sleep at night. The software switches the system back on if there's a scheduled recording.

“The early win here is to be made in changes that have no impact on customers,” Field said.

Wear and Tear

Other DVR makers, including Scientific Atlanta, have also developed auto-shutoff features. And besides looking like good citizens, manufacturers have a more self-interested motivation — disk drives last longer if they're not churning continuously.

Dave Clark, SA's director of product strategy and management, said that when the company initiated its energy-efficiency program, the primary goal was to reduce its devices' mean time between failures (MTBF), a statistical estimate of a system's reliability.

“We were clearly thinking about MTBF,” Clark said. “There was a business opportunity to reduce MTBF, specifically in our DVR products.”

Today, SA's Explorer 8300 HD DVR, running at full tilt, draws 26-28 watts. That's down from about 35 watts two years ago. “As we move forward we're looking to be even better in that area,” Clark said. SA expects to achieve more power efficiency with new chip designs in the next three to five years.

The U.S. government's voluntary Energy Star program, which sets energy-efficiency guidelines for household appliances, is now working up new standards for digital set-top boxes and DVRs.

Operators are already specifying that other products, like modems, be compliant with Energy Star ratings, according to Arris senior director of marketing and customer operations for consumer-premises equipment Ron Miller. “Some RFPs [requests for proposal] have come in and they say, 'All we want are Energy Star devices,'” he said.

SA's Clark added that building a more efficient set-top has become a business concern: “If my set-top uses 40 watts, and my competitor use 15 watts, that's an issue.”

At the same time, Clark said, next-generation set-tops with new features — like MPEG-4 compression and support for CableLabs' OpenCable interactive TV technology — will most likely require more horsepower, and thus more power, at least initially.

“When those features first come on to the market, there's a bump as we start to move down the learning curve,” he said.

Of course, wouldn't it save even more power to simply unplug the TV and read by candlelight?

“Well, yes, we could all get naked and go live in a cave,” said NDS' Field. “But it's not realistic to expect people will do that. We have lifestyles we expect to maintain.”

Headend Power

Meanwhile, the gear that goes into cable providers' data centers is also steadily providing more bang for the kilowatt.

For example, Harmonic has increased the density of its video-encoding platforms, and cut the power required per channel by more than half in two years. Its previous single-channel encoder used 150 watts in a 1-rack-unit (RU) system. The current-generation platform provides four channels in 1RU and consumes 240 watts, or 60 watts per channel.

Data equipment vendor Juniper Networks also touts its energy efficiencies, claiming the T1600 core router requires 30% less power than a competitively configured system.

“One of the things operators are looking to do is consolidate infrastructure,” said Juniper director of service provider marketing Chris Komatas. “But even as we've seen growth and scale in power consumption in core routers, we've made sure we deliver efficiencies from a power perspective.”

Cutting electricity bills in service-provider networks is a bigger need outside the U.S., Komatas noted, because electricity is significantly more expensive in parts of Asia and Europe than in North America. But, he added, power efficiency is becoming a larger consideration for U.S. service providers as well.

Juniper also promotes power as a differentiator for its E120 Broadband Services Router, which is able to run on standard 60-amp electrical circuits typical in smaller locations compared with 80-amp requirements of other solutions.

“There's an enormous cost associated with bringing high-amp circuits to the racks,” Komatas said.

Follow the Euros

Another major green initiative facing electronics manufactures came from across the pond.

Unlike Energy Star, this one's not optional. The European Union's Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) mandate went into effect in July 2006, prohibiting electronics from containing lead, cadmium, mercury and other heavy metals and chemicals.

Now U.S.-based equipment vendors are extending compliance with RoHS (pronounced “ross”) to their worldwide product lines.

Getting ready for RoHS “was not an easy task,” Miller said. The transition required working with all of the company's component suppliers to make sure they complied with the regulation, by, for example, using a silver-tin alloy instead of lead for soldering.

But Arris had to ensure everything it shipped into Europe was in compliance, including the cables and the boxes the cable modems came in.

Arris is now moving to RoHS standards for all the CPE products that it ships in North America, Asia and the rest of the world, finishing the last pilot in China at a manufacturing plant. For one thing, Miller noted that California and other states are preparing to pass legislation enacting similar environmental requirements.

It's also less expensive to produce a single product line for the entire world, instead of maintaining both RoHS and non-RoHS products, according to Mike Cookish, Motorola director of product management for cable-modem termination systems.

“It makes it simpler — if we have to do it for Europe, let's do it for everyone,” he said. “To be honest, we're doing it less because of the environmental reasons and more because it makes business sense for us.”

By year-end, Motorola's Broadband Services Router 64000 CMTS and all of its components will be totally RoHS-compliant.

Motorola started its RoHS program in 2004, and, like Arris, the company also found meeting the standards took longer than expected. “The whole ecosystem had to change, but the good news is it didn't require a lot of software changes,” Cookish said.