Turn Everything Off or Be Regulated

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Government agencies love to regulate.  After all, that’s what they do.  Sometimes the regulations are warranted, necessary and a good thing.  But many times they are not.  I get the feeling that these agencies are not busy enough so look for things to regulate.  That is too much of a good thing… if you can really call most regulations a “good thing”.

Just recently I was speaking with Anton Monk of Entropic, the chip company that makes the widely used MoCA home networking chips and set top box (STB) SoCs.  MoCA chips use the existing in-home cable TV coax wiring to distribute cable TV signals and Internet access to PCs, TVs, routers, and DVRs.  Monk explained that the Department of Energy (DoE) had recently decided to clamp down on STB manufacturers because of the high power consumption.  Most people leave their set top boxes on for a fast start when they turn on the TV set.  Even if the box is turned off, it is still technically on because it needs to be because it is connected to the cable network and gets its directions, software updates and new TV schedules during the night.  And you certainly don’t want to unplug the box as it will take a half hour or so to reboot it.  With millions of STBs in the U.S. each eating up 30 watts or so when on and maybe a fourth of that when “off”, that’s too much wasted power.

This situation is similar to the charger problem.  Most people leave their cell phone and other device chargers plugged in even when not charging.  These devices consume power even when not charging so are a constant drain on the grid.  Everyone should faithfully unplug their chargers when not using them.  I doubt that will ever happen.  The outcome is that charger manufacturers had to resort to different designs that consumed less power when plugged in but not charging.  This is a good thing as it must save a gazillion kilowatt/hours of energy during the year.  It may be possible to save even more if STBs were more power efficient.

Anyway, the DoE decided to back off from the original proposed regulations and told the industry to self regulate the power consumption of STBs.  The industry was required to submit such self regulation guidelines to the DoE by September 30th.  That was done by industry standards group Cable Labs.  The details are not known yet.  Hopefully the DoE will be happy with the self regulation details so that no formal regulations will be necessary.

Chip makers like Entropic have already taken steps to add power saving features like sleep and standby modes into their devices.  Most now incorporate a power management section that keeps specific circuits like processors and interfaces shut down unless they are being used.  Big power savings will result in the forthcoming generation of STBs and DVRs.

I wish the government would do more of the self regulation approach.  Who knows best how to control their products and technology than the manufacturers?

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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