Aereo Wins Some, Loses Some

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Aereo could change the nature of television delivery. But it must first face legal challenges from broadcasters, including a case before the US Supreme Court.

For those who might not have heard of it, Aereo is a relatively new TV service that receives terrestrial, over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts from local stations in certain cities and retransmits them over the Internet to subscribers via various devices, such as tablets, smartphones, Roku, Apple TV, and desktop browsers. It also provides a cloud-based DVR service that lets users record their favorite shows and play them online whenever they wish, all for a flat monthly fee ($8/month for 20 hours of recording time, $12/month for 40 hours).

As you might expect, the service has attracted the attention—and ire—of the major networks, which claim the startup is violating copyright laws and stealing their content by not paying retransmission fees. The 1st and 2nd Circuit Courts in Boston and New York City both upheld the company’s right to do what it does, saying that it doesn’t infringe on the networks’ copyrights.

But in the most recent ruling by the 10th Circuit Court in Salt Lake City, the judge stated, “The plain language of the 1976 Copyright Act supports the plaintiffs’ position. Aereo’s retransmission of plaintiffs’ copyrighted programs is indistinguishable from a cable company.” As a result, the service had to shut down in Salt Lake City and Denver. It’s still up and running in Boston, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and nine other so-called “markets,” about half the number anticipated in phase one of the rollout. To see if your in one of Aereo’s service markets, visit its website.

Meanwhile, Aereo just launched in Austin, TX, to coincide with the SXSW (South by Southwest) Festival, which started on March 7 and runs through March 16. In attendance is Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia, who is taking the fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. He faces an uphill battle—the US Department of Justice has sided with the broadcasters in an amicus brief filed with the high court, which now has the case on its docket.

Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia holds a single user’s antenna next to arrays of such antennas on large circuit boards.

The crux of the dispute is whether Aereo streams content over the Internet to customers (illegal) or provides its customers with access to the hardware that lets them stream the content to themselves (legal). Aereo works by assigning a tiny OTA antenna and DVR storage to each user, which supports the notion that each user has their own equipment. But as Peter Putman points out in an article for Display Central, the individual antennas are too small to have enough gain for high-band VHF and UHF reception, and they are spaced very close together, which means they behave as a larger antenna delivering TV channels to many people, not just one.

And that’s not the end of Aereo’s problems. During the Oscars and Golden Globes telecasts this year, users in New York experienced service interruptions, including inordinate buffering, incomplete recordings, and other glitches. Of course, any new technology is bound to have growing pains, but problems like that could drive users away in droves.

Other Aereo news from SXSW can be found in this story on Engadget.com, including a statement by Kanojia to Engadget that a Chromecast app should be released “in the next couple of weeks.” He also told the tech site that he has no plans to sell the company, despite rumors to the contrary. Obviously, the Supreme Court decision will have a huge impact on any plans Kanojia has for the scrappy startup.

Do you subscribe to Aereo? If so, what has been your experience with it?