Skip to main content

Watt's That? Power Limits on Set-Tops?

Many cable operators aren't aware of it, but sleepy provisions buried in some controversial energy bills now moving slowly through Congress would set new restrictions on power levels for set-top boxes and cable modems, as well as scores of other devices in the home.

The measures would require manufacturers to cut the amount of power consumed by devices in standby mode by up to 95 percent of current levels, according to some estimates. In fact, the already-passed House version of the energy bill would require that devices limit power to only one watt when in standby mode, with some exceptions.

In the Senate, both a Republican-backed bill and Democratic version still being drafted are shaping up to be far more industry friendly, sources said. Neither contains a specific wattage requirement.

"The Senate is more willing to draft something meaningful and reasonable," said one lobbyist.

But even the Senate is expected to defer to the Department of Energy in setting tough new standards.

No matter what happens once the two bills are reconciled in conference committee, it appears certain that the cable modem and set-top box vendors will have to change specifications over the next few years to cut wattage levels, adding unknown costs for the industry at large.

"It would require a major redesign of how all of these systems operate," said Scientific-Atlanta Inc. subscriber technical director William Wall.

Industry lobbyists who have worked closely with Congress on the issue are more worried.

"This is very broad and all-encompassing," said Consumer Electronics Association director of technology policy Doug Johnson. "It would bring products into this realm that have never been regulated before. The one-watt approach is a soundbite with a policy wrapped around it."

QUIET AT NCTA

Though the consumer-electronics camp has closely tracked the standby power provisions in the energy bills, cable has mostly stayed on the sidelines.

In fact, a National Cable & Telecommunications Association spokesman said the industry agrees with the CEA's stance and will leave most of the lobbying to that trade group's device experts.

The cable industry has a few reasons to take a hands-off approach for now.

For one thing, none of the one-watt restrictions in the House version would apply to digital set-top boxes, digital TV sets, or digital personal video recorders (PVRs) until after 2007, which gives the industry a few years to figure out low-power designs.

Companies could also wriggle out of the standby provisions if they could show that the cost of modifying the device would be unreasonable, or that important features would be compromised.

Still, lobbyists involved with the matter said they expect the energy department to end up with plenty of discretion to determine which set-tops and cable modems are covered by the rules.

SOME EXCEPTIONS

The House bill also allows some exemptions for devices recognized as compliant under the Energy Star program, through which manufacturers negotiate with independent experts to arrive at low-power thresholds for various devices.

No cable-modem or set-top manufacturers are part of the Energy Star program yet, but set-top manufacturers have been negotiating to join. Just the same, the process has been slow.

"Frankly, it's a struggle to get the voluntary levels set, and those are well above one watt," Wall said.

Wall said parties have batted around wattage numbers as high as 20 watts for standby mode on high-end boxes, 15 watts for mid-tier boxes, and as much as 7.5 watts for low-end boxes. He said it's unclear how many watts a cable modem might use while in standby mode, but it would probably need to be in the five-to-seven watt range.

It's also unclear how Congress and the Energy Department will define "standby power." In the House version, "standby mode" means "a mode in which a household appliance consumes the least amount of electric energy that the household appliance is capable of consuming without being completely switched off."

But experts say even that definition is murky.

"The question is what constitutes standby? When you push the button on a set-top, it doesn't turn off," Wall said. "It tunes to a specific channel with a data beam broadcast. That's done when the box is off because, otherwise, it would interfere with the viewer experience."

Low-power boxes might also need to conserve energy by rebooting each time they're turned on, which could create significant time delays. "Things like that might not be very friendly to consumers," he said.

ARGUMENTS ABOUND

Since the House passed the Markey amendment, lobbyists have offered such unintended consequences in a bid to convince lawmakers that they should avoid setting strict standby power levels.

Johnson noted that cable modems and set-tops require a certain amount of standby power to offer consumers an "always-on" connection — a major selling point for broadband and interactive services.

"Those are two devices that serve technical functions when on standby," he said.

Johnson now argues that limiting the functionality of such devices conflicts with Congress' stated goal of expanding broadband deployment.

"The always-on Internet, and all that entails for a household, is threatened," he said.

Others argue that limiting each device to a particular power level would simply push features into separate devices that would combine to use the same amount of power as a single device.

"That doesn't make any sense," said Philips Consumer Electronics Co. vice president of government affairs Randy Moorhead. "If you want to put a new feature in a product, that requires energy."

Any effort to set arbitrary standby power limits would therefore stifle innovation, he argued.

"No company or lab will ever try to innovate if the government says it's against the law," Moorhead said.

Others worry that the flood of waiver requests from cable operators and other industries seeking to avoid the one-watt rule could overwhelm the Energy Department.

"It would take a lot of the DOE's time," said Electronic Industries Alliance assistant manager of environmental affairs Jason Linnell.

Linnell and Johnson also argued that CE manufacturers have a natural incentive to keep power levels low to reduce heat and trim manufacturing costs.

SOME FLEXIBILITY

Environmental groups — which had originally lobbied Markey to insert the one-watt amendment — disagreed about how devastating such requirements might prove to the affected industries. But they have shown a willingness to listen to opposing concerns.

"There are ways to address this smartly," said Steven Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), one of the key proponents of tough standby-power rules. "We prefer setting a [wattage] value, but we could live with a quick rulemaking process at the DOE."

That would be surprising, because Energy, like the Federal Communications Commission, often sits on items for years.

Nadel estimated that the Energy Department's current process would likely require a year to determine which products to cover, another two years to test those items to determine feasible standby power levels, an additional three years to finish a rulemaking to determine specific standards — and then another three years before the rules would take effect.

To ensure that rules take hold earlier, ACEEE has asked for provisions that would compress the Energy Department process into two to three years.

"We recognize that manufacturers need time," Nadel said. "But there's a lot of energy wasted with standby power. You're never going to get it as low as it can be. They say, 'It's just a few watts.' Multiply that by 100 million boxes, and it's a lot of power."

Even with exemptions for several devices, Nadel estimated that a one-watt limit would save the U.S. some 32 terawatt hours per year by 2020.

WHITHER ONE WATT

Industry lobbyists are still trying to figure out how they got in this mess. "Where did they get this one watt from anyway?" asked one frustrated lobbyist.

The one-watt idea stems from Executive Order 13221, signed by President Bush earlier this year. The order requires government agencies to purchase only products that use no more than a watt of energy while in standby mode.

"One of the ways that our nation wastes energy is through what they call vampire devices," Bush said in announcing the order.

Bush's comments caught the ear of Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who saw an opportunity to press for wider adoption. Markey, the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, tacked such an amendment onto the energy bill, making it more difficult for pro-business Republicans to object.

After the bill passed the House, lobbyists convinced the Senate to water down the language.

The Senate bill isn't expected to pass this year because Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) doesn't want Senate Republicans to attach an amendment that would authorize oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That gives industries more time to conduct studies and create arguments against the one-watt requirement before the Senate and House versions go into conference at some point before final passage.

In the meantime, Senate Republicans have drafted their own energy bill that wouldn't set any wattage requirements and would defer most work to the Energy Department.