One of the big stops on the road to energy efficiency is at video. “Stop” is the operative word though. After all, the road to get standards recognised and adopted can be long, with many potential hold-ups along the way.
Energy Efficiency Q&A
Erik Reinhard, Distinguished Scientist at InterDigital, a mobile and video technology R&D company, leads a project called Energy Aware Media with an end goal of reducing energy consumption of media, for example through pre- and post-processing techniques. Already involved with the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) on the broadcast side, Reinhard said turning to the standardisation body was a logical starting point.
“If you look at the start of the transmission chain, decisions made there have repercussions on everything that follows: The distribution, the transmission, what happens inside a television. All that is affected. So it’s good from a strategic point of view to look at where broadcast standards originate. That’s why we thought to go and create an opening to look at energy ‘questions’ in that corner. It turns out that opportunity did not exist. So we thought, ‘you never know what’s going to happen. Let’s write a document that asks the ‘question,’” he said, explaining that asking a “question” is a formal process.
Initially submitted at a meeting last October, the question was successfully adopted by the ITU French delegation as a potential topic to be included in the remit of ITU-R Working Party 6C (ITU-R WP 6C). At the subsequent March meeting, the question was established as a working document. However, those are each just initial steps, with more to come.
Reinhard said InterDigital’s familiarity with the ITU-R plays in their favour in terms of a relatively smooth standardisation process. However, with only two ITU-R WP 6C meetings per year, Reinhard, who was named Co-Rapporteur of the issue alongside Hemini Mehta of the European Broadcasting Union, also pointed out it will take another cycle altogether before the question gets accepted as a published document. It may take even longer.
“Hopefully when the next meeting is held, we’ll be able to make that […] a preliminary drafted question. If that happens, then in the March 2022 meeting , we can make it a draft of a new question. Then it goes to all member states and three months later, it’s a question and it’s published and it’s open for business,” Reinhard said, saying only then will possible solutions be developed.
He nevertheless added that the ITU works by consensus. A single nation can hold the process up if it so chooses. Reinhard was optimistic that won’t be the case.
“At the moment, I see there’s a lot of willingness to work on this issue,” he said. “There’s no reason why this wouldn’t progress at the indicated speed, but you never know. A nation may suddenly decide there’s a clause in there that still doesn’t work for them or needs some tinkering.”
Greater Bandwidth, Greater Energy Requirements
Reinhard described the question as a new opportunity, and in fact a critical one. To illustrate, his team’s expertise is in pre- and post-video processing and codecs, but a big part of energy efficiency will always rest in the hands of end users.
“Ultimately displays use a lot of energy to produce light and so, if you want to optimise, say, a broadcast chain, it’s good to look at where the energy is consumed,” he said. “Televisions are a big part of this and set-top boxes are a big part of this, certainly for cable television and satellite set-top boxes, but our expertise is not really in display light technology. So we can’t really do much there. To try and reduce bandwidth, for instance of video, that is one way where we can do something.”
Greater bandwidth is both a boon and a hindrance throughout the tech sector. Talking to 6GWorldTM, Tommaso Melodia, the Director of the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things at Northeastern University, discussed spectrum. He said as higher frequencies open up, such as mmWave frequencies with 5G or projected terahertz frequencies with 6G, more bandwidth is made available. However, there’s a flipside to take into account.
“If you have a lot of bandwidth available, you can transmit at very high data rates. If you have very high data rates, you can stream a lot of data [and] connect more devices,” he said. “What the problem now is, processing this very large amount of bandwidth the way it’s done today with digital signal processing requires a lot of processing power. Processing power comes with a couple of problems.
“No. 1, you need energy to do the processing. That would consume the batteries of your handheld devices, like your mobile phone or whatever IoT devices you may be operating at high frequencies. So, they’re developing new techniques and new architectures and new devices that can process all this data that is being transmitted with low energy consumption and with high efficiency when it comes to the processing power.”
A recent tweet by U.S. telecommunications company Verizon made news for revealing this energy-bandwidth trade-off. The tweet suggested consumers should switch their cellphones to LTE as a way to conserve battery power, thereby indirectly instructing them to switch off 5G, which the company has been heavily promoting.
Video a Good Place to Start?
Patrick Mercier, Co-Director of the Center for Wearable Sensors at the University of California San Diego, spoke to 6GWorld on the subject of wearable devices. Also an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the university, Mercier suggested some wireless communication technologies are holding energy efficiency back.
“Currently, if you build a wearable device, almost by default you can use Bluetooth Low Energy as your wireless communication standard,” he said. “Despite ‘Low Energy’ being in the title of the standard, it’s not actually that low-energy, to the point where it’s actually preventing enablement of some wearable device form factors that we’d like.
“So, I think wireless communication technologies are in fact a bottleneck for many classes of wearable devices in preventing either longer operational lifetime or smaller form factors, because you’re limited by the size of the battery basically. So, we need innovations in wireless communication to enable the new generation of wearable devices. Will 5G help solve that? Frankly, I don’t think so. I think 5G is very focused on cellular standards in communications and most wearable devices aren’t networking directly with cellular networks.”
Reinhard meanwhile made the argument that, if you’re going to reduce the consumption of energy in communications, it makes sense to first address relevant video standards – or the lack thereof. Of note, ITU-R WP 6C focuses on standardisation in video and program production. It accounts for at least 12% of a given broadcast system’s total energy cost, according to a BBC white paper. However, there’s a bigger picture at play that connects video to everything else.
“Communication over the internet of everything has a certain percentage that is dedicated to video and that percentage currently hovers around 80%,” he said. “It’s enormous. So, if you can get video under control, you reduce the bulk of the need for communication. If you’re going to reduce energy dependency on communication, video is a good place to start.”
Feature image courtesy of Francey (via Shutterstock).
With journalism credits spanning several sectors including finance and tech, Ryan joins 6GWorld with wide eyes looking onward. He aims to lend his experience to the site, covering the latest generation of cellular advancements as it unfolds, leading into 6G.