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8 September 2022

Regulators drag behind vendors in sustainability action

Faultline approached The Greening of Streaming Second Annual Summit eager to hear about numbers, data and real action on the ground, rather than a merry-go-round of vague promises and calls to urgency. While we were not disappointed, any imminent structural change is likely to be led by the vendor community, rather than the bureaucracy of governments and regulators.

A prime example came from Akamai veteran Ramesh Sitaraman, who offered a few case studies of how the streaming stakeholders are tackling the most recent set of challenges that have surfaced in tandem with carbon awareness. One issue for CDN providers is that the carbon efficiency of a national grid varies hugely on a country-by-country basis. In response, Akamai has created CarbonCast, which offers 96-hour forecasts of the carbon efficiency of electric grids around the world. Importantly, Carbon Cast is an open source tool.

Sitaraman also sought to bust the myth that renewable energy sources, specifically solar, are unreliable. While true on a global level, he argues that much of the inconsistencies dissipate when zooming in on more manageable regions. If working within a 600-mile radius, Akamai has found that it can reduce grid energy use by 40%, by redirecting CDN routings to sunnier locations, where solar energy is more reliable.

In turn, many argue that data centers are simply too power-intensive for renewable energy sources. Sitaraman argues the solution is to break data centers up into a distributed edge of micro data centers, all linked by software to dynamically reallocate workloads. While logical, this vision sounds perhaps a bit too utopian in the short term.

“Talking from the perspective of someone who builds things, if we want sustainability, we have to build differently,” Sitaraman implored.

The world’s largest CDN provider committing to building differently will be music to the ears of GoS, as a group driving more sustainable engineering practices from the bottom-up.

Sitaraman argues that the current era of re-engineering began in 2018, when the industry started realizing that its cost-driven initiatives were not sufficient in tackling climate change. “We are realizing that energy efficiency is not enough to achieve sustainability, we need to think of carbon efficiency, too,” said Sitaraman.

For those wanting clarification, energy efficiency relates to how much work is achieved per unit of energy, while carbon efficiency measures how much energy is used per unit of carbon. For example, a solar-powered micro edge server may not be very energy efficient, but it is incredibly carbon efficient. Conversely, a coal power data center offers high energy efficiency, while simultaneously scoring low on carbon efficiency.

Showing data from the Uptime Institute, Sitaram pointed out that the power usage effectiveness of global centers has been effectively flat since 2013. If data centers are approaching peak energy efficiency, tackling carbon efficiency is the next step in the fight against climate change.

While vendors have the technical know-how to tackle problems head on, it seems that governments and regulators are constantly entangled in a web of red tape.

Simon Parnall, Principal Advisor Broadcast Technology at UK communications regulator Ofcom, seemed embarrassed to share that the regulator still had no environmental targets for its stakeholders, in large part because many have said they struggle to report their carbon emissions accurately. He did, however, applaud initiatives like albert, the carbon calculator for UK broadcasters, for bringing some congruence to certain sectors.

To start setting targets, Ofcom is in the process of fully getting to grips with carbon emissions across its stakeholder industries. Parnall shared a snippet of one ongoing study led by environmental consultancy firm Carnstone to determine whether streaming or broadcast video creates more emissions.

This found that while a digital terrestrial viewing hour consumes less than 80 Wh, a comparable hour of OTT viewing consumes over 110 Wh. While viewing devices seem to consume less power when watching an OTT feed, this is more than made up for by far larger energy consumption from data centers, CPE and peripheral devices.

In either case, Parnall highlighted that over 90% of the emissions created by an hour of video watching come from within the consumer’s home.

UK Member of Parliament Dr Alan Whitehead – who presented at the GoS Parliamentary event in June – revealed that Ofcom is not alone in failing to implement net zero mandates. To our surprise, the UK’s environmental regulator, Ofgem, is equally lacking in this department, which makes Ofcom’s own sustainability drives even more untenable.

“Neither regulator has the ultimate power to change things,” Whitehead explained. “If one makes a move without widespread consultation and support, they risk falling under judicial review led by opposing forces.” For instance, if Ofgem deemed Ofcom’s carbon targets to be too rapid, they could easily stick a spanner in the works.