Monday, June 27, 2011

Power to the Set-Top Box: Who’s Involved?

One of the most challenging aspects of engineering ethics is figuring out who the players are. Sometimes half the ethics battle is won once you have identified all the significant parties who may be affected by a given engineering enterprise or decision. This process is especially important in examining an issue that I had frankly never given any thought to until I read a New York Times article entitled “Atop television sets, a power drain that runs nonstop.” It turns out that the set-top box—the device that interfaces your cable TV signal to your TV—along with any digital video recorder (e. g. TIVO) you may have, together consume more electricity annually than many newer-model refrigerators. Whether this is a problem depends on who you are and your point of view. But first let’s identify the players.

Most numerous, and as usual the least informed, are the consumers of cable-TV services in the U. S. Nearly all households in urban and suburban areas have cable TV, and that means over 160 million of these boxes are out there. Next in the lineup are the cable-TV providers: the companies that rent the boxes (typically) to the consumers and decide how to operate them. It turns out that two of their priorities, namely fast service to the consumer when the TV is turned on, and convenience in system maintenance and data downloading, dictate that the set-top box and recorder (if present) are usually turned on in fully operational mode 24 hours a day. Since the average box-recorder combination uses about 50 watts, that’s like having a 50-watt light bulb turned on all the time. Doesn’t sound like much, but multiply that by 160 million and you’ve got a lot of power.

Next, there are the box and recorder manufacturers themselves. Many of them market devices in Europe, where there is a higher cost for electricity and consequently a demand for boxes that go into snooze or sleep mode, in which their power consumption decreases anywhere from 50% to 90% or more. True, to wake them up out of sleep takes maybe half a minute, but European viewers appear to be more patient than American viewers. Or else, the first set-top boxes over there ever marketed took 45 seconds to start up and your average Frenchman thinks that’s just a fact of life, like not being able to get good crepes Suzette at a fast-food joint. Some of the sleep-mode boxes are sold to the U. S., but the cable operators here don’t take advantage of that feature, by and large.

Farther down the list of interested parties are the U. S. power utility companies, the Federal government (which has voluntary Energy Star ratings, but so far no mandatory regulations about this matter), various state and local governments, and finally media outlets such as the New York Times, which go around looking for ways that they can encourage the U. S. to be more like Europe, among other things. Some people would include the whole rest of the world because increased power consumption means a larger carbon footprint, which can lead to climate change, etc., but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.

Once you know the players, you ask how the game is being played. Well, cable service is a utility like any other. Only in this matter, it turns out that in addition to paying the cable bill with its black-and-white figure, taking one utility’s service results in an invisible increase in another utility cost, namely your electric bill. In the U. S. a kilowatt-hour costs between 10 and 20 cents, depending on where you live, so the indirect monetary cost to the average consumer of cable and DVR service because of increased power consumption is between $45 and $90 a year. In most people’s budgets, that is not a big deal, but if you knew it could be reduced by more than half if you were just patient enough to wait 45 seconds whenever you turned on the TV, would you choose to save that amount?

For various reasons, that is a choice that most U. S. consumers have never been asked to make. Some people who are hyper-energy-conscious may see this article and start to bombard their cable provider with demands for energy-efficient cable service. This is a fairly new thing in the consumer-marketing field, and there is no general term for it. I guess you could call it politically-correct market appeal. It’s the kind of thing that goes on when you see ads for sneakers that aren’t any better, and may be more expensive than the average mass-marketed sneaker, but come with a certificate guaranteeing that they were made by contented American union workers and not in some sweatshop in a South Pacific island. Some people really would choose to wait 45 seconds to watch TV if they knew their carbon footprint was thereby made smaller. (Of course, it would get a whole lot smaller if they just threw out the TV altogether, but that’s a different story.)

On a personal note, I may have mentioned that my last career in industry before becoming a full-time academic was as an engineer helping to design Scientific-Atlanta’s first set-top box, a job I quit thirty years ago this summer as the project was collapsing around my ears. That firm went on to pick itself up from that six-million-dollar mistake and pioneer the business of “smart” cable boxes. The one we designed—when it worked—had less computer power than a pocket calculator, but turned on right away. But nobody who is used to the super-enhanced services of today’s cable providers would want to switch to such a primitive device—it’d be like swapping all our cars for Model Ts. The power consumed by cable TV boxes is probably not going to be a big factor in the future of western civilization. But it’s worth thinking about, or at least reading about, I hope.

Sources: Elizabeth Rosenthal’s piece on this issue appeared in the June 25, 2011 online edition of the New York Times at


1 comment:

  1. Would just like to say, I am an 18 year old student looking to become an Engineer of some sort. I started to read your blog a year ago when I was having doubts about a future major, and the things I have read have been great. There is a lot of "self-awareness" in each post which I like (though my pointing out might be redundant, given the name of the blog) and very much appreciate. keep it up!