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Power Up! Cable's plans managing a key resource

Wed, 09/11/2013 - 8:33pm
Brian Santo

The industry intends to get control of its energy usage, an increasingly  critical factor in nearly everything it does.

Power is important. Can’t run a network business without it, right? Which would make power no different from, say, optical fiber, or QAMs, or provisioning systems. The difference is that in the last 18 months, power has started evolving into a topline criterion for MSOs.

This new prioritization is in recognition of energy being both an inextricable and critical factor in almost every calculation of network operating efficiency and reliability.

The drive for more efficient use of energy is taking many forms, and there are numerous programs both within and without the communications industry, some of which might be only tangentially related to each other, yet taken together are making energy management an almost pervasive endeavor.

New efforts run from programs involving the equipment that cable operators use to deliver services, to new specifications for home network routing equipment, to improvements in fleet vehicles, to services that help broadband customers manage their own energy consumption.

Powered networks and the largest communications facilities – headends, central offices, data centers – are among the more voracious electricity users on the planet, inspiring several disparate efforts to minimize energize consumption, including the CCAP proposal for integrating headends and the Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI) program out of the SCTE.

Meanwhile, superstorms and other natural disasters have been knocking out power for entire regions for days, even weeks, jeopardizing critical communications services. The unrelenting sequence of natural disasters has bred a keen appreciation for back-up power systems, for the tools to manage emergency power, and for workforce expertise to run and maintain those systems.

And as all that his happening, consumers keep buying more electronics and multitasking with them, raising concerns not only about the energy consumption of consumer electronics but premise equipment supplied by service providers.

Top down   

On the national level, the rate of growth of electricity demand has actually been slowing for decades, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Even though the number of things that consume energy grows ever greater, overall consumption is mitigated by gains in energy efficiency.

The EIA does not break down energy consumption into specific sectors, but in its Annual Energy Outlook 2013 with Projections to 2040, the organization gets almost oddly specific in a very few instances, and one of those is an oblique reference to over-the-top video and similar services.

The report notes the effects of the growth in the size and number of data centers: “Although the recent recession slowed the rate of installation of new data centers, growing demand for web-based services continues to drive growth in energy use for non-PC office equipment, which increases by an average of 1.1 percent per year from 2011 to 2040. Improvements in data center cooling and ventilation equipment, as well as increased server efficiency, continue to moderate the increase.”

“Increased server efficiency” has some resonance for the cable industry in particular. A cable modem termination system (CMTS) is in essence a specialized server, and increasing CMTS efficiency is one of the aims of the move toward the converged cable access platform (CCAP).

Eventually, years hence, all network traffic will be IP. But for cable MSOs, video and data traffic are (mostly) separate. The question is: how to get from where they are now to an all-IP future? Taking into account that different MSOs have differences in their network architectures, CCAP outlines the paths an MSO might take toward a point – perhaps years from now – when CMTSs and QAMs, currently separate, will be integrated.

residential energy consumptionRight off the bat, integration will drop the cost per channel, leading to significant savings from an operations perspective, while providing a path toward all-IP.

Those are the top-line benefits for CCAP, but energy savings will be an important subsidiary benefit.

As CMTSs and QAMs get integrated, they will end up sharing power sources (which is to say, the number of separate power sources will be reduced), which will cut power consumption.

That will also have an important downstream effect on energy usage. Electronic equipment generates heat, and failure rates of electronic systems increase with temperature. So not only do headends draw a lot of electricity just to power the equipment, they draw even more to run ventilation and cooling systems to draw off heat and keep all that gear nice and frosty. By ultimately minimizing the amount of energy drawn, CCAP will also help minimize the requirements for ventilation and cooling.

A CableLabs technical review of CCAP determined that “operators can expect power savings of more than 50 percent, with decreases in power consumption also leading to a reduction in the amount of heat generated.

The combined savings are good for both operator budgets and the environment, and should help reverse a trend whereby operators continue to add an increasing number of boxes to the traditional headend stack.” The passage was in a 2012 report on CCAP from Motorola (now Arris).

A year ago, conserving energy in headends and other data centers might have been a goal to shoot for at some indeterminate point in the future. That’s not the way MSOs are acting now, at least not according to the people at Alpha Technologies, an energy supply specialist that is one of the key suppliers of both primary and backup power to the cable industry, and an early participant in the SCTE SEMI program.

More electronic equipment translates into more heat; there’s nothing new there.

Network operators tended to deal with the problem as it popped up, adding more cooling capacity each time that they added more network equipment. But they’ve been adding so much, and they’re adding so much more, the problem has become acute.

“The overall facility is coming under a lot of scrutiny for optimization,” said John Hewitt, Alpha’s vice president, broadband sales and product management. “There is more equipment that needs to fit into every facility than is currently possible.”

He said the increase in the number of facility augmentations the company has been asked to do is significant. “They are adding more AC power, more AC inverters, more utility feeds into these buildings because of sheer volume,” he said.

“Every time you do a node segmentation, there’s a need for more CMTS and router capacity to have an effective segmentation.

Higher bandwidth use, node segmentation, fewer homes per node – it drives more equipment into the facility every time. CCAP hopes to head some of that off from a power side, but we’re still seeing an overwhelming demand for power,” Hewitt continued.

Alpha said it has seen a heightened awareness of power issues in facilities in just the last 18 months. Said Hewitt, “Comcast was the first one that drove us with standards and an incredible focus on the facility, and we thought it was just Comcast, but six months later, it was everyone.

“Five years ago, the industry buzz was to harden your outside plant, now the industry buzz is to harden your facility,” he said.

“The main driver is high-speed data and the incremental CMTSs and routers in every critical facility, quickly followed by video on demand. VOD was cute three years ago and DVR was hot. We’re watching this transition where that’s reversed, and the DVR might even go away into the cloud.”

Before VOD was done in geographical centers, but now it’s being moved to the edge. The hottest movie cannot be distributed successfully from only three facilities, Hewitt noted, which is driving more equipment into more facilities.

With the dawning realization that managing power is becoming critical, the industry set the SCTE on the task of managing the development of energy saving technologies, standards, and practices. The SCTE introduced the program, SEMI, just last year.

Mark Coblitz, Comcast SVP of strategic planning; Steve Bradley, Cox Enterprises director of alternative energy, and Dan Cooper, Time Warner Cable VP of critical infrastructure, and others threw their collective weight behind the program.

Comcast EVP and chief network officer John Schanz recently took over from Coblitz as Comcast’s liaison to the program.

“The focus in the last – call it 15-plus years – has been around density,” Schanz said. “Density has driven better space utilization, but it hasn’t always had as much energy consideration. We want to continue to drive density, but we also want to drive a significant improvement in energy efficiency when we can.

“CCAP is probably one of the first access initiatives that not only drives higher performance, better density, it also improves unit cost in terms of bandwidth, but at the same time it also takes a major step in energy efficiency,” he continued. “It’s a good first example, and there are many more to come.”

The goal with SEMI is to go far beyond just integrating systems.

“If you were to take an inventory of all the things that roll into the SEMI initiative, it’s vast. Equipment, equipment at the customer premise, equipment in the core network, opto equipment, server and storage equipment, how you own and operate data centers, you’re talking about the whole ecosystem. Fleet. The things we’re doing with GPS. Idle timers,” Schanz said.

“SEMI really just puts a bow on all the work that’s happening in all of these groups that go into what we do. We want everyone to have this in their thinking, in their decision criteria, and the vendors – as they always have – will work with us on that.

“The way, personally, I’ve always thought about these technology decisions, there have been three components: we always want the highest performance, we’d like the greatest features, simultaneously with the lowest unit cost of whatever it is,” Schanz said. “I view the SEMI initiative as adding the fourth component of decision criteria, where we’re adding energy efficiency.”

The result should be significant opex savings.

“A network like ours, it’s very high performance.

We have bays of equipment I have to plug 1,000 amps into. You can go back 10 years, and you can run a whole facility on 1,000 amps, and now I’m running one bay.”

That’s the sort of thing the SEMI initiative will, over time, address, he said. Perhaps not necessarily cutting back consumption, but cut back on the growth of consumption.

One of the major elements the SCTE is pursuing through SEMI is called the Adaptive Power Systems Interface Specification.

APSIS will result in a set of standards for power management for the entirety of a broadband network, from end to end. That will include not only managing specific systems such as routers, switchers, and CMTSs, but further developing energy monitoring and control systems.

The program is ambitiously encompassing, and will touch nearly every aspect of operations, which will make the standards development process exceedingly complex.

SCTE president and CEO Mark Dzuban said he expects these standards won’t be finalized until the end of 2014, for inclusion in systems that will be built in 2015, ’16,’17, and ’18.

Cisco, Arris, and many other vendors are participating in the SEMI program and APSIS standards development.

For example, a server complex is designed to meet peak demand, but what happens when demand is not at peak? Right now, nothing happens. Servers need to be powered down to a dormant state when not used, Dzuban noted. If an installation has four servers all running at 100 percent power but only 25 percent capacity, it’s more efficient to power down three servers and run the fourth at 100 percent. The basic idea is to draw power consumption down so that it’s proportionate to the level of activity.

And the scrutiny goes beyond just network equipment. Air conditioning, for example, is critical for keeping network equipment from overheating, and is often enough run at full blast 24/7. That’s not always necessary.

Ultimately each piece of equipment will be connected to an element management systems (EMS) interface, and then there will have to be a host controller to manage the equipment based on feedback from the network. APSIS would end up defining a new layer of data to be handled by EMS systems.

APSIS will also pertain to disaster control.

In the event of an extended power outage, an operator may need to manage a back-up fuel supply. With APSIS-compliant systems in place, an operator should be able to manage the network, for instance turning off everything except for 911 emergency services and critical services such as cellular backhaul, Dzuban explained.

Another capability that will arise from all these efforts will be predictive alarming.

There are three data points that are highly predictive of potential failure: 1) increased temperature of the equipment – especially the silicon, 2) increased current drain, which is a degenerative process – the more energy you draw, the hotter it gets and the more likely it is to fail, and 3) an anomaly in processing (e.g., packet errors).

What about reliability? Energy draw, translates to heat, and cooling of course, is critical for equipment life. Roughly for every 10 degrees cooler you can operate, the mean time between failure is doubled, Dzuban explained. If you drop from a core temperature of say 80 degrees down to 70, your mean-time-between-failure can go from 10,000 hours to 20,000 hours, or from 100,000 hours to 200,000 hours.

With enough telemetry from APSIS systems, a control system should be able to create a 3-D heat map of a facility (without using infrared) that network operators can use to identify potential problems.

“With 40 percent or more growth in bandwidth, you’d think you’d have 40 percent growth in energy consumption, but you’re not,” Dzuban said, “because with the energy efficiency programs, especially those you’re going to see in ’15, ’16, ’17, you’ll see us reduce the growth lower than bandwidth, so energy will not inhibit the growth of bandwidth.”

Where might the SEMI program go? Schanz has an idea: “There are standards and certifications out there like Energy Star and things like that. My vision and hope is that there will be standards out there that will be more like ‘Bandwidth Star,’ things that look at, say, for a certain amounts of bandwidth you’d get efficiencies – maybe a number of watts per something – some unit of currency.

I can see ‘Bandwidth Star’ being a program in which we could benchmark equipment and technology and drive standards not only ourselves but across the industry.”

And of course there’s an associated benefit to managing power consumption: “It’s environmentally conscious; it’s just the right thing to do,” Schanz said.

On the opex side   

Communications service providers can specify, build and manage networks and equipment and back-up generators all with energy efficiency in mind, but then there are other energy uses – and costs – where they’re in the same position as other consumers.

Communications companies have their own offices, and they also maintain fleets of vehicles used for everything from network construction to service installation and maintenance. The communications industry should benefit from some of the same energy-saving trends pertaining to both offices and vehicles that will affect society at large.

Energy consumption in office spaces (average delivered energy consumption per square foot of commercial floorspace) very recently began declining, and the EIA expects it to continue to decline at an annual rate of 0.4 percent through at least the end of its projection window – to 2040. That is expected to continue to happen even while commercial floorspace grows by 1 percent per year.

The EIA expects the greatest reduction in energy intensity (essentially of energy usage) in the commercial sector to be in the area of commercial lighting, with the ongoing migration from incandescent lighting to fluorescents to LEDs.

More and more communications companies are adding electric, hybrid, and flex-fuel vehicles to their fleets, or converting vehicles. Cox and Comcast each have several thousand alternative fuel vehicles in their respective fleets.

The energy is up to 40 percent cheaper, Dzuban noted, and engine life is extended, perhaps as much as 50 percent. Coppervale did an analysis, he said, that showed that there can be notable savings in reducing engine idling, using GPS, using pre-routing, properly timed oil changes, and even making sure tires are properly inflated.

The moves are part of a national trend that includes privately-owned vehicles as well as corporate fleets. As manufacturers design and build ever-more efficient vehicles that conform to new CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards that kick in for the 2017 model year of automobiles and light-duty trucks, and then get gradually more stringent through 2025, the EIA expects motor gasoline consumption to decrease while diesel fuel use grows, even as more natural gas is used in heavy duty vehicles.

Greenhouse gas reductionsThe EPA has established standards that translate to an average of roughly of 54.5 miles per gallon – if reached only through fuel economy. (The calculus is based not on MPG, but on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and the standards can be met in part through reductions in air-conditioning leakage and the use of alternative refrigerants, which reduce CO2-equivalent GHG emissions but do not affect the estimation of fuel economy compliance in the test procedure.) Heavy duty vehicles (tractor trailers, buses, heavy-duty pick-ups and vans) are another case. Here, the EIA expects fuel switching to natural gas in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG). These alternative fuels are considered costly, but are likely to still be less expensive than the projected cost of diesel fuel. “The fuel cost advantage is expected to be large enough in the view of a significant number of operators to offset the considerably higher acquisition costs of vehicles equipped to use these fuels, in addition to offsetting other disadvantages, such as reduced maximum range without refueling, a lower number of refueling locations, reduced volume capacity in certain applications, and an uncertain resale market for vehicles using alternative fuels,” the EIA said.

The Consumer Side   

The number of households is going to grow, so total delivered electricity consumption in the residential sector should increase by about 24 percent.

But some electric and electronic devices – everything from PCs to dishwashers – are expected to continue becoming ever more energy efficient.

Reflecting ongoing energy efficiency gains in consumer equipment, the EIA expects average electricity demand per household to decline by 6 percent, from 12.3 megawatt hours in 2011 to 11.5 megawatt hours in 2040.

The largest reduction in residential electricity use is for lighting. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA2007) phases in standards that require a reduction of about 30 percent in energy use for general-service lamps between 2012 and 2014, with specific dates that vary by light level.

Years ago, set-top boxes came under scrutiny for being energy “vampires” – devices that suck the same amount of juice whether they were busy or not.

And for years now, the vendor portion of the industry has been working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star program, whose mission it is to develop, evaluate, and demonstrate non-regulatory strategies and technologies for reducing air pollution, which now includes greenhouse gases, a major by-product of many forms of energy generation and energy consumption.

Set-top boxes are now built in various configurations with automatic powerdown modes or deep-sleep states, or both.

Vendors can have their set-tops certified for both single-room and multi-room use under Energy Star.

Even with Energy Star certification, power consumption among set-tops ranges wildly, from as little as 6 kilowatt hours/ year (the Apple TV) to nearly 200 kWh/yr (a Samsung model), according to the EPA.

The figures are based on U.S. average TV viewing patterns.

The EPA says that Energy Star qualified set-top boxes are on average 45 percent more efficient than conventional models. It further calculates that if all set-top boxes in the U.S. were to meet Energy Star requirements, consumer energy cost savings would grow to about $3 billion each year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from about 3 million cars.

The number of Energy Star set-tops of one type or another topped 100 in 2013, supplied by a variety of manufacturers that include Apple, Arris, Cisco, DirecTV, Dish, EchoStar, Motorola, Humax, Pace, Samsung, Sony, and Vizio.

That’s set-top boxes. But there’s other CPE in every home: modems, routers, and other home networking equipment, and they appear to be next on the radar of consumer groups looking to make electronics greener. The EPA, through Energy Star, is preparing specifications for this category of equipment as well, that would calling for the same or similar measures already built into set-tops – automatic power downs and sleep modes – to be built into home networking equipment.

Modems used to access the Internet and Wi-Fi routers that move digital content around the home to computers, printers, game consoles, and other electronics annually consume as much electricity as a new 32-inch flat screen television. That’s more than twice as much as an efficient 14-inch laptop computer, and 30 times as much as a cell phone charger, according to consumer group the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

All of these devices together, used by the 88 million or so broadband subscribers in the U.S., consume about $1 billion worth of electricity annually, but models that are just 25 percent more efficient could cut total consumption by about 2.8 billion kWh/yr., which would translate as a reduction in consumer energy bills by at least $330 million, the NRDC calculated.

“These small, innocuous black boxes that never sleep consume enough electricity each year to power all 1.2 million homes in the Silicon Valley area, the hi-tech capital of the world,” said NRDC senior scientist Noah Horowitz. “Small network devices suck roughly the same amount of energy around the clock, whether or not you are sending or receiving any data. But there are steps that manufacturers can – and should – take to make sure these devices are no longer energy vampires.”

Interestingly, the multi-screen trend has a noticeable effect on in-home electronics power consumption. PC sales are dropping in favor of tablets and other mobile devices, and that’s having the interesting result of dampening energy consumption. According to the EIA, “Changing trends for personal computer adoption, increasing data center efficiency, and slower-than-expected adoption of new data centers as a result of the recent recession all lead to lower electricity consumption...”

Minimizing energy consumption has become such a pervasive concern that munications service providers have even turned energy management into a product, as companies like Comcast, Virgin Media, and others add features to their home automation services that help subscribers begin to meter and manage energy consumption in their homes.

Overall consumption   

As noted earlier, the rate of growth of electricity demand has slowed in each decade since the 1950s, from a 9.8-percent annual rate of growth from 1949 to 1959 to only 0.7 percent per year in the first decade of the 21st century, according to the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook. These reports typically provide three scenarios based on different assumptions about a number of factors; rather than go over all three, we quote the mid-line projections in this article.

While overall consumption is mitigated by energy efficiency gains, the nearly worldwide recession has also retarded some of the growth in demand in recent years, one of the reasons why the EIA expects total electricity demand to increase a bit, to 0.9 percent per year through 2040 (28 percent total), from 3,839 billion kilowatt hours in 2011 to 4,930 billion kWh in 2040.

On the generation side, the EIA expects coal-fired plants to continue to be the largest source of electricity generation, though coal’s market share of all power generation is projected to decline from 42 percent in 2011 to 35 percent in 2040, as coal fired plants get closed and few are built to replace them.

The EIA projects that generation from natural gas will increase, with its share of total generation growing from 24 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2040. Based on the relatively lower cost of natural gas.

Generation from renewable sources should rise from 13 percent in 2011 to 16 percent in 2040; hydropower is likely to remain roughly steady while solar and wind grow.

There should be some expansion of nuclear capacity, in the next few years, but nuclear plants are expensive to build, and require rare, high-cost expertise, and so nuclear power is likely to lose share by 2040, to about 17 percent.

The EIA expects the retirement of 103 gigawatts of existing capacity, offset by 340 gigawatts of new generating capacity coming online.

The EIA does not break down industry by sector, but statistics are available from other organizations, including the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Note that while the statistics cited from the EIA concern the U.S., the following statistics look at the global market, and some are expressed in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) generation. Still, they are indicative.

Communications service providers come under the heading of information and communications technology (ICT). ICT usage is expected to expand rapidly over the coming decade, especially in developing countries.

Compared to other sectors, the ICT sector worldwide is responsible for a relatively small portion of global greenhouse gas emissions – about 2- to 2.5 percent according to the ITU That includes emissions by ICT companies directly as well as energy consumption by ICT equipment.

Fixed-line telecommunications account for about 15 percent of the total, while mobile telecommunications contribute an additional 9 percent and LAN and office telecommunications about 7 percent.

If no efforts are made to curb GHGs in the sector, the ICT contribution to global GHG emissions is projected to nearly double – to about 4 percent – by 2020, according to GreenTouch, a global organization whose members include academics, research institutes, and industry participants (including Bell Labs, Chunghwa Telecom, CommScope, Fujitsu, Huawei, and ZTE).

Such efforts are being made, however.

ICT equipment energy reductions are currently running at 10- to-20 percent annually.

For example, the amplifiers and base stations used in mobile networks are now designed to consume less power. Mobile networks are making greater use of renewable solar and wind energy sources. Fiber optic cables are cutting energy consumption in fixed networks. Energy-efficient cooling systems are being widely introduced in ICT equipment, GreenTouch said.

The organization also cites the statistic that over the next decade billions more people will upload and share video, images and information over the Internet and other communications networks. According to most studies, in spite of increasing ICT network usage, the current industry efforts to reduce power consumption should enable the ICT sector to maintain its current greenhouse gas profile over the next decade.

GreenTouch cites esearch from Bell Labs that determined that today’s ICT networks have the potential to be 10,000 times more efficient then they are today. That assumption includes getting near the theoretical limit of Shannon’s Law, a formula that defines a theoretical maximum rate of data transmission in any IT network.

While approaching the Shannon limit could be a mighty task, cutting network energy consumption by a factor of “only” 1,000 would be roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them now for a single day. ■

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