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Comcast's Strategy Chief Calls a Power Play

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

PHILADELPHIA -- It's high time the cable industry started watching its wattage, insists a top Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) executive.

Mark Coblitz, Comcast's SVP of strategic planning, is calling on the cable industry to forge a new long-term energy management strategy as MSOs continue with their IP video migrations and shift more services and apps into the cloud, including network DVRs.

Speaking here at the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) 's Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI) Forum, Coblitz urged MSOs and suppliers to factor energy requirements at the "design phase," warning that the cable sector's ability to grow and manage its costs is at risk, because current energy policies and today's broadband networks are ill-equipped to handle all of the power-sucking services that lie ahead. (See SCTE Drives Green 'SEMI'.)

While not a concern that must be fixed overnight, Coblitz said that it must be addressed and solved within the next five to ten years. "We will be faced with the reality that our ability to grow will be constrained by the quantity and timing of obtaining electrical power," he said.

Curbing the appetite of energy-eaters
Coblitz identified several trends that will affect cable's ability to source the power it needs, including higher demands for bandwidth, network DVRs and the emergence of wireless broadband and machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies.

While the legally approved way to do a network DVR -- such as Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC)'s "remote-storage" DVR, or RS-DVR -- requires that the MSO store an individual copy of each customer's recording request, it's not nearly as energy-efficient as an approach that would let multiple subscribers stream from the same copy. In fact, the storage duplication for an RS-DVR is rather wasteful from an energy standpoint. (See Inside Cablevision's 'RS-DVR' and Cablevision's Network DVR Debuts in the Bronx .)

According to Coblitz's estimation, if 30 million set-tops or connected devices had access to a network DVR and the current, legally approved method remained the only option, it would require about 300 megawatts of power. If an MSO was allowed to install a more sharable system that supported 2 million different titles, energy demand plummets to 5 megawatts. [Ed. note: As a point of reference, Coblitz noted that a nuclear plant generates 1000 megawatts.]

And that's just one example. Comcast's annual Internet usage has surged at least 40 percent per year during the past decade, a trend that required the MSO to install more than 3,000 physical servers in its dozen-plus data centers last year.

Coblitz is also wary of the emergence of M2M technologies, noting that developers typically don't place an emphasis on network efficiency. He likewise said that the increasing use of outdoor Wi-Fi units and 4G cellular services will place more stress on local wireline networks that backhaul the traffic.

Additionally, the energy demands of decoding and transcoding will also rise as MSOs support more unicast IP video traffic and, later, begin to look at bandwidth-chowing, higher-resolution video formats such as 8K, which is about 16 times more detailed than 1080p.

Forging a new energy plan
Coblitz didn't propose a new soup-to-nuts plan on Thursday, but said it's imperative for the cable industry to take a "long view about energy" and to start the process of creating a strategy.

In the meantime, he did suggest that MSOs, vendors, and industry organizations begin to factor in new energy requirements during the "design phase" of new products rather than viewing them as some tangential thing to react to when it later becomes a problem.

Consider the new plan officially underway. And it serves as fair warning for cable vendors: If you intend to do business with Comcast down the road, you'd best tune in, don your Energy Domes, and start to think about how your gear can survive on less power.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:39:20 PM
re: Comcast's Strategy Chief Calls a Power Play

Should add here that cable isn't starting from scratch the vision Coblitz presented. SCTE CEO Mark Dzuban noted that the Society has several standards underway to help address cable's energy needs or optimize its energy programs (17 projects total).

 On the access network, CCAP also looks to save space and power by combining CMTS and edge QAM capacity in a much denser device, but any significant deployments of that are likely at least a year away.

 Also, CableLabs just kicked off an effort last year dedicated to improving energy efficiency in set-top boxes and other CPEs and an Energy Lab to support that initiative. So cable's definitely looking for some serious collaboration inside and out of the industry to make this happen.

But cable wants to do more before it's a problem it can't react to. "This is a critical to us and an issue that we need to head off," Coblitz added in a follow up panel going on here. JB

User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:39:19 PM
re: Comcast's Strategy Chief Calls a Power Play

Maybe the next big court case involving RS-DVR will include an environmental impact statement.

Jeff Baumgartner
Jeff Baumgartner,
User Rank: Light Beer
12/5/2012 | 5:39:07 PM
re: Comcast's Strategy Chief Calls a Power Play

You might have a point there... remove those legal requirements and save a boatload of energy. It's gotta get someone's attn. the  next time someone tries to challenge or change the current allowable approach.

In the media scrum after the keynote I asked Mark if the energy impact of an  RS-DVR would make it a non-starter, and he said absolutely not (Cablevision, after all, is doing it), since moving that storage into the cloud still saves more energy than it would by having it on individual devices. He stressed that his point is that moving storage into the cloud via an rs-dvr just shifts some of that  energy load to Comcast and off of the customer.  He made a good point: no one has really talked about the power implications of the network DVR... we've been so focused on the legal issues of it. JB

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