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Comcast ready to jolt electronics industry on energy awareness

Fri, 03/16/2012 - 3:28pm
Special to CED

Comcast's Mark CoblitzAs senior vice president of strategic planning for Comcast, Mark Coblitz sees a parallel between the cable industry’s current energy situation and the time when it became obvious the industry had to move from IPv4 to IPv6.

“We saw that a time would come when IPv4 address space would be exhausted … so our industry took the lead in the migration to IPv6,” Coblitz said during a keynote address to the SCTE Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI) Forum in Philadelphia.

Coblitz was the event’s keynoter, but execs from Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable were on hand to underline the buy-in from the rest of the cable industry.

Today, the ready availability of energy to power all of those new devices with IP addresses is similarly threatened, and Coblitz wants to use Comcast’s heft to jolt vendors and other network operators into doing something about it.

“It’s more about a mindset,” he told a group of media after his speech. “When we talk about innovation in this space, we’re talking about how you change the way things are done.”

The mindset has filtered through the Comcast hierarchy, where Coblitz will ride herd on energy awareness. The buzz is also coursing through other areas within the wider cable industry, from the work being done by the SCTE, to collaboration with CableLabs and the NCTA, to other MSOs, and even programmers, that have joined the effort.

“This is an industry basically saying this is a problem and we can solve it,” Coblitz said.

It is not just a cable industry problem, of course, so things must change for other non-industry companies, starting with the power utilities, which, at a minimum, need to better understand that cable cannot grow without sufficient energy and will take whatever necessary steps to ensure a supply – including seeking and developing alternative sources.

Cox Communications is right in step with Comcast. Cox director of engineering and sustainability Steve Bradley was also on hand at the event. Significantly, Bradley’s resume includes a stint employed by Southern Power.

Among the first steps will be compiling enough information to justify the energy management steps being proposed. While some within an MSO might be influenced by the long-term gains that come from power efficiency, and others might be drawn by the glow that surrounds doing something environmentally attractive, a bean counter counts beans. And if the beans don’t line up, the initiatives don’t get approved.

Financial managers need to be dazzled with “sizzle steps,” said Beth Colleton, senior vice president of social responsibility for NBCUniversal. “Give me those stats [about how power conservation can save money in the long term], … and you blow people’s minds. It’s about what drives the business for us.”

Jim Barthold, senior analyst at NPD Connected Intelligence, said: “It was really interesting to see cable addressing the energy situation. It’s a little like the problem with IPv4 as the guys stated on the panel, but I see it more as a bandwidth parallel. You need to manage bandwidth to handle all the new devices coming online. In this instance, you need to handle the energy. I’m curious to see how it evolves.”

The cable business has always been driven by the need to profit from delivering programming and content and services as effectively and cost-efficiently as possible, so there’s never been any overt desire to cloak cable’s actions.

“I’d like to disassociate the effort from motherhood and apple pie [and] focus on the value of this to the business case,” said Dave Flessas, senior vice president of network operations and planning at Time Warner Cable. Energy management, he said, “has nothing to do with good corporate citizenship.”

Not that good corporate citizenship can’t be part of it.

“There is a wonderful consequence of this; we will be more green,” Coblitz said.

The more immediate consequence is that an industry that’s using more power to deliver more services in more ways cannot afford to offload those costs onto consumers and cannot afford to step back, so it’s going to have to pay a bigger electric bill. Cable might look like it’s energy-efficient when it moves set-top functions such as DVR to the cloud, but it’s really not gaining ground; it’s losing.

Off-site network DVRs reduce on-site energy consumption, but they pile on the watts for the network.

“To meet the current requirements of copyright law and programming contracts, today’s network DVRs have actually been configured as remote storage DVRs … that require that a separate copy of each piece of content that an individual household might want to record must be stored and maintained separately,” Coblitz pointed out. “It’s lost on no one that this is more expensive and uses more storage than would be required if the law and contracts allowed us to store one or a small number of copies for delivery and backup. But at least in my experience, no one has ever asked the question, ‘How much energy does this duplication require?’”

If they had, they’d get this answer: A lot. An industry supporting 30 million connected devices with a network-based service across multiple service providers and storage locations would require about 300 megawatts of power in an RS-DVR scenario, Coblitz estimated. A coal-fired power plant generates 545 megawatts; an average nuclear plant generates 1,000.

“Remote storage DVR is fully one-third of the output of a nuclear plant,” Coblitz said, offering up some “sizzle.”

A network DVR without remote storage consumes about 5 megawatts. Solving that problem is more than an energy equation, it’s a political equation that brings the lobbying heft of the NCTA into play.

No matter what steps the industry takes, energy consumption will grow, Coblitz said.

That’s why, from a networking perspective at the very least, CableLabs must “make energy an upfront consideration for every … specification” because “that hasn’t been the case up to now,” Coblitz said.

The network is the first energy problem that needs to be addressed. It’s local and it’s national, which gives it a dimension few other industries face. While Coblitz averred that he would not “draw a circle around cable,” he did point out that cable is operationally unique.

“While the operational facilities of a Google can be centralized at any location where ample power can be obtained – and facilities can be moved or expanded opportunistically – cable requires the availability of sufficient energy to power each local headend, each hub, and even each node and amplifier at the neighborhood level,” he said.

It’s a local problem that needs a national spotlight, so you “need somebody to start it in scale, and that’s something Comcast can do,” he said.

And, he added for the media, you need someone to walk behind those leaders and remind everyone this will not be accomplished overnight.

“This isn’t about instant gratification,” he said. “It is a very long process.”

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