Set-Top Box Energy Conservation Agreement Makes Us Skeptical But Hopeful

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comcast boxEver try to fall asleep in a room where a cable, satellite or telco set-top box (STB) resides? If you like white noise, the STB will provide it with its never-ending ambient hum. Ever touch a big honkin’ STB that’s turned on? That’s some serious heat it’s giving off, isn’t it?

In a world where most electronics have become smaller, thinner, quieter and more energy-efficient, pay-TV STBs are rickety, 20th-century Frankensteins of technology. I have no idea how much power my Comcast STB gobbles up, but I’m willing to bet it’s a considerable amount because the darn thing forever seems like it’s huffin’ and puffin’.

That’s why the announcement this week that an alphabet soup of organizations — the U.S. Energy Department, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP), the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) — have collectively established “non-regulatory energy efficiency standards for pay-TV set-top boxes that will result in significant energy savings for more than 90 million U.S. homes” is such welcome news.

We hope.

The standard was developed “through a non-regulatory agreement between the pay-TV industry, the consumer electronics industry and energy efficiency advocates.” “Voluntary” and “non-regulatory” are often corporate code words for “we really don’t want to do this, but enough people complained, and we don’t want the government to get involved, so here. Here are some ‘standards’ that we’ll ‘voluntarily’ enforce.”

Anyway, let’s not take such a cynical view. Let’s believe that this coalition “will improve set-top box efficiency by 10 to 45 percent (depending on box type) by 2017… [and is] expected to save more than $1 billion on consumer energy bills annually.”

The set-top box efficiency standards announced today will ultimately save enough electricity each year to power 700,000 homes. The standards will also avoid more than five million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year. As consumer demand for digital video recorders and high-definition set-top boxes grows, actual consumer savings are likely to be even greater. The introduction of whole-home devices will also further reduce the overall energy footprint.

The non-regulatory agreement provides a framework for the Energy Department, pay-TV industry and energy efficiency advocates to work together on efficient, high-performing set-top boxes that keep pace with technological improvements, achieving what would otherwise be done through regulatory standards and test procedures.

The agreement also requires the pay-TV industry to publicly report model-specific set-top box energy use and requires an annual audit of service providers by an independent auditor to ensure boxes are performing at the efficiency levels specified in the agreement. The Energy Department also retains its authority to test set-top boxes under the ENERGY STAR verification program, which provides another verification tool to measure the efficiency of set-top boxes.

Agreement signatories include…Comcast, DIRECTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems, Bright House Networks and CenturyLink; and manufacturers Cisco, ARRIS (including Motorola), and EchoStar Technologies. Energy efficiency advocates Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), and the Appliance Standards Awareness Project (ASAP) are also signatories to the agreement.

That all sounds wonderful. But a lot of press releases sound wonderful and then prove rather tricky when the rubber hits the road. Especially when the slowwww-moving, myopic, self-protect-at-all-costs cable industry is involved. CableCard, anyone?

So call me when you’re actually giving me a more energy-efficient STB, Comcast. But excuse me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for you.

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