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How to Reduce the Streaming Industry's Carbon Footprint

Reducing the carbon footprint of streaming and increasing clean energy is essential, and the onus for doing so should largely fall onto the industry itself rather than onto the consumer, according to Tim Siglin, Founding Executive Director, Help Me Stream Research Foundation, and Dom Robinson, Director and Creative Firestarter, id3as, and Contributing Editor to StreamingMedia.com, UK.

Siglin comments that he has found it fascinating how many well-informed people do not realize the full energy intensity and carbon impact of streaming. “When I say, ‘hey, did you know that streaming consumes energy?’ At first, they're shocked because they're like, well, my mobile phone has a battery, I have to charge it. I get that,” Siglin says. “The very next question they ask is what can we do as consumers about it?” But even if consumers take actions to reduce the impacts of streaming video and lowering electricity consumption by doing something like turning off their Wi-Fi access router at night, the bits are still being transited across the network. “So, one of the points we're trying to get to is thinking about what the industry can do,” he says.

While the environmental impacts of streaming media are still being studied, recent findings indicate that as much as 3% of the world’s energy is being used by CDNs. This is fueled by the intense demand and growth for streaming services over recent years, according to Robinson. He notes that while other older and more entrenched industries such as aviation contribute similar amounts of worldwide energy usage, there remains time for the streaming trade to get closer to carbon neutrality.

“Our industry's still young enough and we're still a small enough community that we feel we can make a significant energy impact,” Robinson says. However, consumers are often unwilling to sacrifice quality and speed in order to minimize energy impacts. While it is important to offer consumers ways to reduce energy consumption such as “Eco modes,” and other options, ultimately, few users are willing to “opt into a lower quality experience” overall, he says.

Siglin says, “I'll give an example from the past and another industry, the cable industry…they had set-top boxes that had hard drives. I was tasked on a Department of Energy project about ten years ago to look at how could we lower power consumption on set-top boxes. Because it turned out all the set-top boxes in the US accounted for three nuclear power stations. That's a lot of power. It turns out that standby mode was just dimming the LED on the front of the set-top box. Nothing actually went into sleep mode. And the reason was consumers did not want to wait two seconds for the drive to spin back up.”

According to Robinson, changing the way that consumer expectations are managed is essential. “We need to actually keep checking where ‘good enough’ is for the consumer,” he says. “We want to make all these higher-end capabilities ready for an instant on. But actually, if you said to the 32K HD 480 consumer, you might have to wait four seconds, because we're not going to preposition this content…you can have it, the environment's dynamic, but you are going to have to wait because you're not the statistical average. We don't have to pre-cache content and grow those Context Aware Encodings (CAEs), just by setting a bit of expectation with the consumer.”

“I think we should have four seconds of ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees as they wait,” Siglin jokes. “Then [they will] at least know that we’re trying to do something.”

Learn more about green streaming at Streaming Media West 2022.

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