CableLabs is establishing a new lab dedicated to improving the energy efficiency of cable customer premises equipment (CPE).

The NCTA and CableLabs put out a joint statement saying the new Energy Lab would focus on "set-top boxes and other devices and developing advanced cable-enabled services designed to promote innovative consumer energy conservation measures."

The industry is already in the practice of building many of its set-top boxes, DVRs, DTAs and cable modems with energy efficiency in mind, however, and having those products tested for compliance with specifications developed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Energy Star program.

So the new Energy Lab will in fact be contributing to the development of specifications for newer categories of CPE, including gateways and the relatively simple modules and wall units that might perform the simple connectivity functions that STBs used to perform in homes that instead are equipped with gateways.

While industry executives failed to mention the establishment of the program at Cable-Tec Expo earlier this week, in retrospect they were obviously making oblique reference to it in a discussion about energy management during the vendor CTO panel on Tuesday.

Comcast executive vice president of national engineering and technical operations and session moderator John Schanz asked a general question about energy efficiency. Arris Chairman and CEO Bob Stanzione said: "There is no Energy Star for gateways. We've been communicating with the EPA about that. There's a lot of good work that can go on there."

Motorola Mobility President Dan Moloney said Motorola is also looking into that. He noted that Europe frequently leads on energy consumption issues, and that measures adopted there tend to be subsequently picked up in the U.S.

The new lab will also devote some energy (so to speak) into reducing the power requirements of systems in "standby" mode.

Addressing Schanz's question at the Cable-Tec Expo session, Intel vice president and CTO Justin Rattner responded: "There are two aspects of it. Most of these devices spend most of their lives on standby. The question is how to operate them at near-zero draw. We're already learning how to run on millivolts."

He explained that even in standby mode, device draw tends to still be fairly high, in order to be at a level from which the device can return to active mode virtually instantaneously. He said that in order to operate devices at near-zero draw, it might be useful to make devices aware of when users are near – when they come home or when they enter the room, for example.

"Sensing energy is another obvious opportunity," Rattner continued. He explained that different devices have very distinct power draw signatures and are often clearly identifiable. "I can even tell when something is about to fail," he said.

Cable operators providing service to approximately 85 percent of U.S. cable customers have committed to ensure that by the end of 2013, at least 90 percent of all new set-top boxes they purchase and deploy will be Energy Star 3.0 devices, the NCTA and CableLabs reminded.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) – who in a September letter to cable and other video providers challenged the industry to develop more energy-efficient devices – applauded the initiative: "I am pleased the cable industry was responsive to my request that it work on deploying energy-efficient cable boxes. I plan to monitor the progress of this initiative closely. Moving toward cable boxes with 'light-sleep' and 'deep-sleep' technology is an important victory for American consumers who stand to save substantially on their utility bills."

Michael Powell, NCTA president and CEO, said: "In the hyper-competitive video marketplace, delivering fully functional, reliable and energy-efficient equipment is critical to our industry's success, and it's good for consumers. Offering energy efficient devices builds on the cable industry's imperative to deliver innovation throughout our entire consumer offering."

The CableLabs Energy Lab is specifically charged with:

  • Designing and maintaining a consistent and accurate energy tracking program for measuring and reporting energy consumption and efficiency improvements of new set-top boxes. Procedures for testing and advancing the energy efficiency of set-top boxes and energy conserving software will also be established.
  • Serving as a testing and development facility for designers of energy-efficient software and hardware.
  • Creating energy efficiency specifications for semiconductor and hardware suppliers and the network operations systems that support cable devices.
  • Assisting in developing applications and products that will help consumers manage their overall residential energy consumption.
  • Showcasing and demonstrating current and future energy savings products and power monitoring capabilities.

The CableLabs Energy Lab initiative will develop collaborative projects with universities and other innovators to promote and showcase the latest in energy management technologies that are enabled by high-speed cable networks, and it is expected to be fully functional by the first quarter of 2012.