Cable MSOs Reach Milestone In Push for Big Energy Savings

Mark Dzuban, CEO, SCTE

Mark Dzuban, CEO, SCTE

October 26, 2011 – The cable industry has made significant progress toward achieving the collaboration essential to building a foundation in energy management and workforce training that’s likely to shore up competitive strength and bottom lines for member companies well into the future.
While the industry has struggled of late to reach consensus on new directions in the use of next-generation technology, there may be nothing more vital to long-term viability than MSOs’ ability to contain costs and maintain operational competence as demands on facilities and personnel escalate to unprecedented levels. “We’re seeing the industry respond to these challenges with a level of cooperation and partnership that’s producing real results,” says Mark Dzuban, CEO of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers.

SCTE, working closer than ever with CableLabs and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, has moved beyond its traditional position as a conduit between solutions development and standards setting to take a leading role in formulating solutions. “MSOs’ recognition of SCTE as a problem-solving entity has moved us to a peering relationship with CableLabs and NCTA that is producing major results,” Dzuban says.

“Our organization isn’t just a passive recipient of best practices and specifications that need to be turned into standards,” he adds. “We have a mandate to vet and submit standards on our own initiative with the engagement of pretty senior folks from the MSOs.”

One landmark manifestation of this sea change is the work accomplished so far with SCTE’s industry-wide Smart Energy Management Initiative (SEMI). In September the organization’s Sustainability Management Subcommittee released drafts of its first two standards, which will set specifications for energy efficiency practices at hub sites and other critical facilities and for the environmental requirements that must be met by different types of facilities equipment. These are critical steps toward creation of standards over the next few years that will set very specific metrics for managing energy consumption and space utilization down to the component level, Dzuban says.

At the same time, SCTE, which has always been the center of industry-wide tech workforce education through its workshops at the chapter and national levels, has greatly expanded this agenda as MSOs search for ways to improve the skill sets of technicians and to ensure that the unique RF practices tied to cable operations are passed on to a new generation of IP-oriented network engineers. New, as yet unannounced installer training and certification programs contracted with Georgia Tech and other institutions are “all about building a smarter workforce,” Dzuban says.

“The education piece is more significant than ever at this year’s Cable-Tec Expo,” he says, in reference to the annual conclave taking place in Atlanta in mid November. “We’ve moved from 15 tech tracks to over 40 tracks, and we’ll continue to expand our program at Expo as a way for our members to improve their knowledge. In the spring we’ll hold a chapter leadership conference to help people optimize their ability to help others develop essential skills.”

Those skills include increased understanding of the industry’s energy requirements as reflected in the principals and specifications under development in the SEMI initiative. Toward that end SCTE has developed a pocket guide to help cable professionals at all levels better understand not only the basics of traditional powering requirements at network facilities but also the latest developments in use of alternative energy sources.

“The new energy pocket guide is part of our effort to develop education around power and facilities that reflect the industry’s need to maximize efficiencies as power consumption increases,” Dzuban says. “We’re developing certifications for gauging skills to help fill the knowledge gap in this area.”

The initial sets of SEMI specifications in the draft documents issued in September by the SCTE’s Sustainability Management Subcommittee, SMS 001 and 002, are just the beginning of what the industry has in mind to prevent facilities expansion and power consumption requirements from getting out of hand.

“Standards that can help operators power advanced communications networks with greater effectiveness and reliability and with less cost and environmental impact are among the most important under development today,” says SMS chairman Dan Cooper, who is senior director of technical operations for Time Warner Cable. “It’s important to the future of our industry that operators and vendors with a stake in the energy management and power availability areas participate actively in the SMS process to ensure that all points of view are given consideration.”

Arriving at consensus on specifications is no easy task, given the varied conditions of facilities and power resources across each MSO’s domain and from one MSO to the next. But there’s a real carrot in terms of major savings which keeps everyone focused on surmounting the hurdles.

SCTE itself offered a case study on this point with its own internal energy management program, which showed how a comprehensive energy reduction program could drive 46 percent of the costs out of its grid-based electricity supply over a two-year period. In April, using comparative figures for the first quarters from the baseline year of 2009 and 2011, SCTE detailed how its implementation of alternative power sources and use of more efficient lighting and information technology systems contributed to the reduced draw from public power sources.

The internal initiative applied many of the options recommended in the SMS 001 draft. In partnership with Alpha Technologies, the organization installed a solar system that met 100 percent of its IT equipment power needs and 10 percent of total headquarters demand. Replacement of high-wattage lighting fixtures with LED bulbs resulted in a reduction in power of up to 89 percent. And the acquisition of new servers with advanced processors and more efficient power supplies as part of a server virtualization project is expected to cut the number of servers required to operate critical business systems by 50 percent.

“A successful energy management program requires visibility into and action on a variety of factors that contribute to energy usage,” says Derek DiGiacomo, head of the SEMI program for SCTE. “Our own ability to quickly reduce grid electricity costs by 46 percent is indicative of how the principles of our SEMI program can lower energy expenses for operators, programmers and vendors alike.”

SMS 001, proposing the standard for “Recommended Energy Conservation, Sustainability and Efficiency Practices for Critical Systems,” describes best practices for maximizing flexibility, scalability, availability and efficiency of power resources from multiple perspectives pertaining to both green field and upgrades of mission-critical hub sites. Tools, metrics and processes essential to smart energy management are laid out for choosing site locations; exterior building construction; setting up and managing primary and back-up power resources from traditional and alternative sources; handling cooling system requirements; implementing energy efficiency; maintaining safety and security; establishing environmental monitoring and building management systems; designing data and communications systems, and much else.

SMS 002, the draft of specifications for “Product Environmental Requirements for Cable Telecommunications Facilities,” addresses such considerations as temperature, humidity, electromagnetic interference and environmental design of indoor shelf-, frame-, rack- and cabinet-level equipment. This includes receivers, modulators, video encoders, multimedia gateways, servers, routers, DOCSIS components, storage units, edge QAMs and just about everything else that can be found in a hub site.

MSOs that follow the prescriptions of these proposed standards can expect to save at least 20 to 30 percent on energy, Dzuban says. Plus operators will benefit from better security against cyber attacks, natural disasters and other mishaps as well as from the longer life of equipment that operates under better conditions, he adds.

Equally important, the emerging standards promise to significantly reduce costs associated with the building and rack space required to accommodate new equipment. “We’re seeing forecasts calling for 20 to 25 percent expansion in bandwidth capacity, not to mention requirements for new devices supporting wireless networks and other new features,” Dzuban says. “How are you going to manage that expansion cost effectively? It’s a huge challenge.”

Creating a standards-based roadmap for that expansion is akin to other major industry projects, such as the development of the DOCSIS specifications, he notes. “All the major MSOs are on board. We’re looking at what protocols exist that we can incorporate into our specifications, at what’s missing and what we need to create and at the metrics we should use with these specifications.”

Dzuban credits SCTE CTO Daniel Howard, who was brought into the job a little over a year ago, with helping to build a “problem-solving level of peering with CableLabs” that allows the organizations to work in close cooperation in areas where their development activities overlaps. Both Howard and Dzuban bring extensive experience in R&D and commercial product development to their efforts to drive the new agenda at SCTE.

A new chapter in the agenda involves setting standards for transaction-based energy consumption, which will take energy efficiency beyond the steps embodied in the initial draft documents. “This new paradigm says anything not pertinent to a given processing transaction gets taken off the power supply,” Dzuban says. “Think of hardware that has the intelligence to go into a dormant state that cuts power consumption but instantly goes into action when it’s needed for a transaction or turns off completely when you need to conserve energy in an adverse situation.”

The key to achieving such dynamic energy-savings capabilities is development of what SCTE is calling the Adaptive Power System Interface Specification (APSIS). The goal is to create a common control protocol that enables energy management at the facilities level all the way down to specific features on individual equipment in the network in reaction to a variety of external and internal influences, Dzuban says.

The intelligence must be sophisticated to the point that when a brownout alarm goes off the system knows how to throttle down incrementally to ensure priority needs are met as the existing power supply allows rather than simply shutting off altogether. “You want to be able to throttle back non-essential services and throttle back specific hardware,” Dzuban says. “You also want to be able to throttle specific components based on time of day and traffic levels. If you have a long-term power outage from a hurricane or some other event you want to adjust your consumption load to fit the amount of backup supply you have for whatever duration you expect to be out of primary power.”

Such capabilities will require new components that use APSIS to trigger actions on the part of element management systems, he says. “It’s going to take an evolution of hardware,” he adds, noting the goal is to enable these capabilities in new equipment by sometime in 2014. “You want to get to where you can add facilities without energy consumption growing at a linear rate,” he says.

Another crucial component to this goal is to create specifications that set parameters around the densities and rates of power consumption for specific components. “The cost of expanding existing facilities is even greater than the costs of increased energy consumption,” Dzuban notes. “Facilities have hit the wall, so any new product we bring in to replace an old one has to be much denser.

“We have to determine how we benchmark the density of a given piece of hardware based on service usage per-cubic meter or some other metric,” he adds. “The second part of that is figuring out how we calibrate energy efficiency based on watts per QAM, watts per channel or something else. There will be a working group assigned to nail this down to where we say to vendors, here’s the window of density we want you to achieve.”