Industry Pledge to Reduce Home Internet Equipment Energy Use Is a Good First Step but More Is Needed

Today industry pledged to cut by 10 to 20% the energy used by small network equipment, which includes the modems and routers used to access the internet and move emails and movies around our home. This is quite important as NRDC estimates that these devices resulted in a $1 billion electric bill for consumers in 2012. As the industry neglected to include any of the details on what their base case was (10% better than what?) and since they appear to have excluded a class of products (see below) that draws the highest amount of power out of all the small network equipment devices in the home, the industry Voluntary Agreement appears to be a good first step but one where more work and progress is needed.

What do we know about these small network devices? - There are around 145 million small network devices in our homes and our groundbreaking survey found in 2012 that they consumed three large power plants worth of electricity per year. Interestingly enough, this is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of all the homes in Silicon Valley, the high-tech capital of the world. As currently designed most small network equipment draw the same amount of power when sitting idle as they do when transmitting large amounts of data at high rates.

This is a complicated market as in some cases the consumer leases their equipment from their service provider and has little to no choice in what model they get, whereas in other cases consumers buy the product directly at retail.

What did the industry commit to do? - In their Voluntary Agreement, the device manufacturers and the internet service providers (companies like Comcast and AT&T) pledged to respectively produce or install devices that meet the power limits they developed for each type of box. In addition, the industry committed to make public the information on the energy use of their devices. These are indeed good developments.

Until further analysis can be done, it's unclear though how ambitious the proposed levels really are. For example how do these levels compare to those contained in the ENERGY STAR specification or to the levels in the European Code of Conduct which has a similar structure and that most of the same manufacturers are already participating in. In addition, nothing in the document discusses industry's plans or commitment to develop next generation equipment that would scale device power use to the task at hand. Doing so could result in significant incremental energy savings, less pollution from power plants, and lower electric bills for their customers.

Where did they fall short?

  1. The agreement inexplicably left out Optical Network Terminals, the little gray box that the telecom companies like Verizon install on the side of your home or in your garage when you sign up for broadband service. In our 2012 testing, we found these devices drew around 150 kWh/yr., which is two to three times more than the annual energy use of a modem.
  2. While the industry committed to "provide reasonable access" to information on the energy use of each modem, router, and other SNE device covered by this agreement, they left out a key detail. While posting the information on the internet is helpful, it would be even better if they would commit to include the power use of their devices on the packaging for those products purchased by the customer at retail.
  3. Unlike standards such as those set by the U.S. Department of Energy or the California Energy Commission that require all covered models to meet minimum energy efficiency requirements, the purchasing commitments made in the Voluntary Agreement only apply to 90% of each manufacturer's annual sales. While that sounds good, there is nothing to prevent a manufacturer from dropping out of the agreement at any time nor is there any penalty for signatories who fail to meet their commitments.