Demystifying energy consumption in streaming: Interview with Greening of Streaming founder Dom Robinson

Green streaming is a concept that refers to industry and consumer efforts to reduce the energy impact of streaming by balancing quality and energy efficiency. Today, the energy consumption of streaming infrastructures is poorly understood, despite growing pressure from consumers and regulators that all industries seek to make sustainability a business imperative. STL Partners spoke to Dom Robinson, founder of Greening of Streaming, an organisation focused on driving industry collaboration to reduce the carbon impact of streaming, to understand where the industry is now and how it can drive change in the future.

How was Greening of Streaming born?

Conversations about green streaming and the carbon impact of video began to emerge in 2018. These discussions prompted me to write an article on ‘greening of streaming’ which attracted interest from across the global internet streaming industry and led to the creation of the Greening of Streaming members’ association. Today we capture ~70% of internet traffic in Europe and North America through our members, including Intel, Varnish, Akamai, and Lumen.

What is the energy impact of streaming; is streaming sustainable?

Streaming infrastructures are technically complex and involve many different partners, this means that it is difficult to establish how much energy is being used and who ‘owns’ the energy consumption at any given stage. The diagram below shows a simplified version of the stages of the streaming process. Each of these stages involves core access and termination, switches, amps, routers and more, equal to many thousands of components that all consume energy. You can find a more detailed version of the diagram produced by Greening of Streaming here.

Given that the volume and resolution of streamed content will continue to grow, streaming businesses, telcos, content delivery networks, and other partners in the value chain need to act now. Increasingly streaming is the tail wagging the dog on this issue, with streaming businesses placing requirements on the content delivery infrastructure, including telcos, to disclose their energy impact and take steps to reduce consumption.

Figure 1: Streaming infrastructure (simplified)

Source: Greening of Streaming, STL Partners

But streaming must be more energy efficient than playing a CD or watching TV using a traditional cable box, right?

For consumers, streamed content might seem more energy efficient than satellite TV or other traditional ways to consume media, but it isn’t, it just makes the energy footprint less visible. Rather than paying the energy cost of satellite or cable connection yourself, the cost has been shifted onto the streaming infrastructure, including your internet provider and streaming service.

What can telcos do to reduce the energy consumption of streaming?

Understanding how energy is used by streaming infrastructure during a live event is a great place for the industry to start getting to grips with the energy consumption of streaming. This is because live video requires all players in the value chain to communicate at one point in time, generating the fullest picture of energy consumption. It will then be relatively easier for ecosystem players to apply the lessons learnt through live streaming to the on-demand context.

This diagram shows the relationship between traffic and network energy consumption during a live streamed event:

Figure 2: The relationship between traffic, network capacity, and power consumption during live-streamed events

Source: Adapted by STL Partners from Schien, Shabajee and Priest

Importantly it shows that high traffic during a live streamed event does not increase load or energy consumption of the network. Instead, it shows that the capacity of the network dictates energy consumption, no matter how many people are tuning in to watch.

This is a really significant finding, as it shows that energy consumption remains peaked for the entire time that the network has increased capacity (the length of an SLA) which might be for weeks before and after the actual live streamed event. The capacity of the network is built out ahead of an event to make sure everybody who wants to stream it can. The gap between the traffic to the stream and the network capacity is an over-provisioning that wastes energy.

Telcos are already making changes to meet network demand in the greenest way, which is great, but what our research shows is that unused capacity demands are the cause of lots of wasted energy. Telcos need to be cautious not to oversell the minimum commitment to an SLA that they offer to content delivery networks (CDNs). For example, a one-month commitment to an SLA that is only needed for a 2-hour sporting event can result in a massive amount of wasted energy. Instead, telcos and CDNs should aim to move to a just-in-time model as standard. For streaming companies, the SLAs are cheap enough that they tend to be abundant with them, but this unnecessary abundance wastes a lot of energy.

What’s next for Greening of Streaming?

We’re working on aligning stakeholders across the ecosystem to develop an accord for a default streaming quality that is optimised for energy efficiency – The Low Energy Streaming Sustainability Accord. For example, a resolution of 1080p is very likely more than good enough for the vast majority of streaming and could be delivered as a default service level. Indeed, early studies show that people can’t tell the difference between that and the higher levels of resolution that are already being offered by some streaming services. Despite this, most current systems are delivering the highest quality by default. We’re seeing 2023 as year of action and are already working with partners across the industry to make this happen, if there are people reading this who want to get involved in our work, please reach out to me directly through the Greening of Streaming website.

The STL view

Currently, it is common for telcos to identify dematerialisation (i.e. reduced demand for physical CDs and DVDs owing to availability of streamed content) as a positive impact of their services on customer emissions. But if they don’t also factor in the increased energy cost across their own networks and the wider value chain of delivering live streamed content, they are leaving themselves open to accusations of greenwashing. You can read more about this in our article ​​From aspirational claims to scope 4: Time to tidy up telco net-zero enablement claims​.

Encouraging just-in-time SLA models and a reduction in the resolution of streaming content might seem counter-intuitive to telcos, whose businesses are based on selling bigger data bundles to customers and higher SLAs to content providers. But the imperative to balance revenue growth with energy consumption to meet sustainability goals is now opening discussions at telecoms operators on how to develop and market more sustainable services. Working together with other players in the video streaming value chain offers telecoms operators and the wider streaming industry the best chance of successfully rethinking their value proposition to emphasize the best quality and most energy efficient service.

Ultimately, if the industry can solve this challenge, then it should be able to deliver services more cost-efficiently and potentially benefit from aligning with increasingly environmentally conscious customers – creating a strong business case for changing the status quo.

Dom Robinson is Founder and Exec Chairman of Greening of Streaming and Director, Co-Founder and CBDO at id3as

He has spent over 25 years focussed specifically on the complex challenges facing the live ‘Streaming Media’ market. Today he leads business development for pioneering live streaming software specialists where the company specialises in delivery of ultra high-availability, scalable delivery of all elements of live streaming. id3as software has been underpinning much of the financial market fair disclosure live webcast coverage for a decade or more, with numerous significant deployments in broadcast, OTT, and webcast arenas, with platforms scaling to many hundreds of thousands of events and reaching many millions of users with carrier grade SLAs.

A pioneer in the sector, he was responsible for the propositioning, architecture, technical design and implementation of many, now well established, online media publishing workflows. He has always had a strong focus on live / linear content delivery, which requires not only a deep understanding of the computational issues involved, but also of intricacies of network provisioning.

He founded the first large-scale Content Delivery Network in Europe. This CDN was pioneering in its focus on driving IP Multicast adoption in the consumer markets, and between 2001 and 2009 it grew to carry over 150m streams each month for clients as diverse as Sky Sports, RT News and over 60% of the UK’s Internet Radio. He was responsible for putting the UK Parliament, Number 10 Downing Street, Glastonbury Festivals (for the BBC) and FatBoySlim online; in many cases breaking new ground while doing so, both technically and in terms of providing entirely new consumer propositions. He produced the world’s first 3D webcast (for Universal, broadcasting a Keane concert) and co-authored several Patents that now underpin many common media workflows. He also began using Satellite IP for Contribution and Distribution models in 1998, building a satellite based CDN for Enfocast / Microsoft in 2001/2002 and consulting with Eutelsat and Astra on several of their deployments.

Widely recognised as a sector visionary, he holds several International Awards for his work, and regularly Chairs or speaks at conferences ranging from Cloud TV, SDN/NFV, CDN, Distributed Compute, OTTTV and IPTV. He has been a Contributing Editor of (and its print magazine) for 20+ years and has been published by Wiley Academic Press.

Author: Anna Boyle is a consultant at STL Partners, specialising in sustainability.