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How utility deregulation will affect the broadcast industry

Walk the floor of any broadcasting trade show and you can't miss the explosion of digital solutions in what was once an analog industry. While this digital convergence revolution is expanding industry content, services and profits, it also has an Achilles heal. Unlike traditional analog equipment, digital devices are far less forgiving of any power quality interruptions.

A typical piece of computer-based equipment is designed to sustain a power interruption of eight milliseconds. Longer interruptions lead to more severe consequences with recovery times and consequences ranging from minutes to many hours in the case of a nonlinear editing deck or a large multi-server system.

While microprocessors are becoming more power efficient, their total power consumption is skyrocketing along with their processing capacity, with many new high-end systems consuming thousands of watts. 10 years ago, a typical CPU consumed 10W, now it is up to 100W. The amount of data transmitted and stored also is doubling every 12-18 months. More data storage means more infrastructure and energy consumption.

When a broadcast facility uses digital technology, it becomes a sitting duck for power anomalies, which are becoming more frequent (most businesses report at least three to five per year with many more subcycle interruptions). Deregulation also has brought uncertainty in the power industry. Deciding who will own and control what has resulted in a disincentive for utilities to invest in maintaining the aging power distribution grid.

Also plaguing utilities is the fact that computers and electronic devices grew unexpectedly to consume 10% of our nation's four trillion kWh of electrical production. That's more power than used by the steel and auto industries combined. This has led to a shortage of power especially during peak demand hours. Utilities try to manage the shortage by purchasing power from the 15,000 other generating stations sharing the national electrical grid.

Unfortunately, you can't always buy your way out of a power shortage. Many metropolitan transmission systems are often saturated and cannot accommodate the importation of extra power. To manage these peak demand periods, utilities may drop the line voltage below critical levels for computers (brownouts), which are designed for only 10% line voltage drop, or impose rolling blackouts - shutting power off in selected areas (usually residential) for a few hours at a time.

For broadcasters, UPSs (uninterruptible power supplies) and generators protect against the threat of power quality incidents. UPSs are necessary to condition power (ensuring consistent voltage and power quality) and guard against subcycle and short power interruptions while generators provide protection against longer outages (greater than 10-20 minutes). UPSs can be small and economical enough to protect specific sensitive equipment or in the case of many facilities, a large UPS can protect the entire facility. One thing is certain: Digital convergence and the proliferation of power sensitive equipment is here to stay making reliable high quality power an essential part of any broadcast operation.