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The greening of the network

Sun, 08/31/2008 - 8:40pm
Brian Santo, Editor

MSOs are beginning to adopt green technologies and techniques.

If there’s anything that generates warm fuzzies amongst one’s Prius-driving, shade-grown coffee sipping, backyard composting constituencies these days, it’s the liberal application of the word “green” through one’s public relations materials.

The thing is, MSOs are getting focused about controlling operational expenses (opex), including everything from call center operations to plant maintenance, and being green can most definitely inspire warm fuzzies among the folks in accounting. Going green is beginning to actually pay.

hybrid bucket trucks
Cox just bought eight hybrid bucket trucks from International Eaton.

The overall communications industry is beginning to take on an emerald tint, led largely by European companies that have complied with Kyoto Treaty protocols spurned by the U.S. Federal government.

That’s not to say U.S. companies haven’t done some voluntary greening, but it’s often those that have a well-placed champion, along the lines of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, who was keen that Comcast’s shiny new HQ in Philadelphia would be designed with green principles in mind; or Cox Enterprises Chairman and CEO James Kennedy, who’s a driver for the ambitious Cox Conserves program.

Everyone is capable of recycling, swapping out incandescent bulbs for fluorescents, and buying hybrid vehicles, and that’s the type of green activity that’s most prevalent in the cable industry – as elsewhere. But it is possible to green the network itself, and the communications industry as a whole is slowly migrating in that direction.

Cox Communications is in the early stages of discussions with its suppliers about greening the network, Cox CTO Chris Bowick said. “I’d anticipate as we go through the RFI/RFP process, greening will be an important concept we want to take forward.”

Vendors of power systems are beginning to make available more efficient products, and suppliers of network equipment and consumer premise equipment (CPE) are beginning to employ power-saving design techniques and to add power-saving features in everything from network routers to set-top boxes.

Alpha Technologies recently introduced a new outdoor power supply that improves on power efficiency over its predecessor by 3 percent, largely through a new transformer design. The new product carries a $100 premium, said Alpha Vice President of Cable Sales John Hewitt, but it saves $30 a year in power over about 15 years, for a savings of about $450 over the supply’s lifetime.

It almost doesn’t seem worth it, until you recall that the typical cable network has one power supply every two or three route miles, by Hewitt’s estimate. So take a company’s total route miles, multiply by 2.5, then multiply again by $450. Replace supplies on 1,000 route miles with the more efficient models, and an MSO can anticipate potential savings of more than $1 million.

“That’s the boring side of going green,” said Hewitt, “but we’re pushing it hard.”

Multilink’s CTO Matthew Limtach said at least one MSO (which he declined to identify) has specified that its power supplies in line mode must be 80 percent efficient. Multilink has been steadily improving the efficiency of its power supplies to the point where its Black Hawk line is now 90 percent efficient, leading some customers to specify supplies at that rating, Limtach said.

Concern with environmenta impact of CE...
Though concern among consumers about the environmental impacts of the electronics they use is less than universal, it’s still strong, with close to 60 percent of adults at least somewhat interested in green products.

The company is also complying with the Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive, a program designed by the European Union to do exactly what the name says. RoHS principles are also beginning to gain traction with U.S. vendors.

The IEEE now has a committee looking at saving power specifically in Ethernet networks, the P802.3az Energy Efficient Ethernet (EEE) Committee, which estimates that in the U.S., all network equipment together represents approximately 1 percent of the country’s energy consumption, about 3,500 terawatt-hours. That number is consistent with global estimates. (All electronics represent 10 percent of the total.)

Perhaps 1 percent is not that much but, as the group argues, 1 percent of a very large number is still a very large number.

The committee calculates that as much as 5.8 terawatt-hours, worth about $450 million a year, is wasted because of energy inefficiencies inherent in Ethernet equipment (global figures might be triple). So the EEE group is looking into ways to minimize power consumption in network equipment during periods of low link utilization.

D-Link has introduced a line of green Ethernet switches. Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems are both green advocates.

Again, this is specific to Ethernet equipment, but as cable increases its utilization of IP networking – that is to say, Ethernet – cable could also enjoy any potential benefits. Furthermore, principles developed for Ethernet routers could be adaptable for other specialized routing equipment, including CMTSs.

Meanwhile devices connected to the network are also drawing full power even when idle, the EEE group notes. These include IP phones, VCRs/DVRs, and … set-top boxes.

...Which leads to the proposed new Energy Star specifications for set-top boxes that are scheduled to go into effect on January 1. Participation obliges a video provider (MSO, DBS, or telco) to ensure that half the boxes it buys are Energy Star qualified, or that a percentage of all STBs used by subscribers are Energy Star qualified.

An STB can gain Energy Star approval by incorporating the ability to sense inactivity and respond with an automatic power-down.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which manages Energy Star, calculates that if all set-top boxes sold in the United States meet the Energy Star requirements, the savings in energy costs will grow to about $2 billion each year and greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced by the equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions from about 2.5 million vehicles annually.

Netgear is one vendor enthusiastically going green, moving from linear power supplies to more-efficient switched mode power supplies in many of its products, according to Bob Burke, the Netgear manager responsible for service provider product marketing.

The company, which supplies products to Comcast, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and other U.S. service providers, is also building into its Wi-Fi routers ways for consumers’ to put their units to sleep, through the graphical user interface or sometimes with a physical button. Burke estimates at least a 20 percent energy savings with the feature.

The inexorable progress in semiconductor technology helps reduce power consumption in all electronics products, noted John Gleiter, senior director of marketing for cable products at chip supplier Broadcom. Each generation of smaller-geometry chips draws incrementally less voltage, automatically dropping the power consumption (power = voltage x current).

Several MSOs are turning to green techniques that range from recycling office paper to installing sizable solar panel arrays to building green skyscrapers – as Comcast did with its new corporate headquarters in Philadelphia.

The 57-story building features a vegetative roof, and an erosion control and storm water management system. Roof fans vent hot air, which otherwise would have to be cooled. The company estimates that water-saving features will save 3 million gallons of water a year.

At Cox, Bowick co-chairs the company’s Cox Conserves program (with Klaus Kroger, SVP of Cox’s western region). He estimates that Cox Enterprises has cut its entire carbon footprint by about 10 percent since 2000. Its goal is to cut another 20 percent by 2017.

The company is experimenting with a new cooling system that freezes water during off hours, and uses that to help reduce the temperature for the facility’s air conditioning system, Bowick explained. The cooling system’s compressor rarely comes on during the day, and the overall efficiency of the system is improved by an eye-opening 95 percent.

The system is installed in a headend in San Diego, but Bowick expects it might be even more effective in hotter climates, such as Phoenix.

Cox is also buying alternative fuel vehicles for its fleet. The company now has about 260 hybrid vehicles, and about 1,400 using biodiesel. Comcast, meanwhile, at last count had 85 hybrids and 700 flex-fuel vehicles.

Bowick said Cox’s fleet is also being outfitted with GPS. Not only does GPS help with precisely mapping leaks in the network as Cox vehicles crisscross neighborhoods, but it is also being used to plan the most efficient job routing.

Cox is also encouraging telecommuting where it makes sense. One of those places is in customer care. Cox’s Phoenix system has encouraged the practice; the operation estimates it has saved 131,000 gallons of gas, and 1,157 metric tons of greenhouse gas. Letting employees set up at home is not only green, Bowick said, but also, “we believe it reduces churn” among employees.

Experiencing a surge in popularity in the last two years or so has been the installation of solar arrays, a procedure engaged in by organizations as diverse as the City of Loma Linda, Calif., Wal-Mart, and Cox Communications.

Cox has installed a 600-panel array in Orange County, atop a 300,000 square foot building, and another atop a parking facility in Phoenix. The California array could translate into as much as 100 tons of emissions saved a year, and the one in Arizona as much as 150 tons a year, Bowick said.

A 200 kilowatt solar carport can achieve payback in as little as six years, Alpha’s Hewitt said. In addition, an array that size can save more than 7.4 million pounds of greenhouse gases over a 20-year span.

Installing a solar array is now economically justifiable – but only in the short run. There’s no telling for how much longer.

Estimates for the cost of traditional means of generating energy range from 2 cents to 10 cents a kilowatt hour, depending on the means – hydro, gas, coal, nuclear – and who’s doing the estimating. (Downstream costs – pollution control, nuclear waste storage, fish recovery plans, etc., have never been included in energy costs; they are instead subsidized by taxes.)

Estimates of the cost of solar power start at 15 cents a kilowatt hour, and go up from there. There are state and Federal tax incentives that contribute greatly to making solar more economically palatable, but the Federal incentives are set to expire at the end of this year.

Congress has considered extending the credits, but the legislation has been repeatedly blocked by the Republicans through a series of procedural votes. The bill in question is the Jobs, Energy, Families, and Disaster Relief Act of 2008 (S.3335), introduced on July 24 of this year.

Still, more MSOs and an increasing number of their suppliers want to go green, and are finding ways to go green that have definable benefits, even if those benefits, regarded in isolation, are modest.

But looking at them in isolation may be the wrong approach. As Alpha’s Hewitt says, “Electric vehicles won’t solve all the world’s problems. Neither will photovoltaics. But the sum of 10 different solutions may get us there.”

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