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Aereo may never get the chance to revolutionize TV

Molly Wood Mar 14, 2012

Somewhere in Brooklyn, a company called Aereo has leased several rooms. In these rooms, the company intends to place tons and tons of little tiny antennas, each no bigger than a dime. “I mean we’re talking thousands of dime-sized antennas in that room,” says Kevin Goldberg, a lawyer specializing in first amendment cases, who has been following the case of Aereo.

Aereo is scheduled to launch today. Each of those antennas in those rooms is assigned to a customer. “They’re trying to maintain that they’re like a set of rabbit ears on top of your apartment building in say New York City, where they’ve launched,” says Glenn Fleishman of economist.com. “So, they’re saying, this is just a kind of antenna that works over the Internet. We’re not grabbing all these signals with one giant antenna and streaming them out to tens of thousands of people, no no, we have thousands of antennas and each one is like someone’s own personal antenna.”

If I signed up, there would be a John Moe antenna just for me. That antenna receives local TV station signals and then transfers them into a server that feeds that signal to me over the Internet whenever I want to watch it.

If you sign up, you get the app so you can watch live non-cable channels. And you get a digital video recorder, a DVR, to record and store shows. So if I don’t catch the latest “American Idol,” I’m not worried — Aereo saves it for me, I can watch it on my phone on my way to work. And yes, public radio listeners, I watch “American Idol.” And I watch “Frontline” on PBS too. Don’t get all mad.

For all this, Aereo will charge $12 a month. How much did Aereo pay the broadcasters for the right to do this? Nothing at all. And here’s a shocker: Aereo is getting sued by those same broadcasters. “The broadcasters are basically saying, you’re not allowed to transmit our signals via the Internet and that’s what you’re doing. Aereo is saying no, that’s not what we’re doing at all. What we’re doing is we are legally allowing our subscribers to get your broadcast signal via an antenna, just like they’d be able to do at home, and there’s no difference as to whether they’d be able to do it at home or somewhere else.”

Aereo’s plan is to start in New York and then spread to cities around the country. Fleishman thinks it’s a weird model but could actually be kind of cool. “I’m in Seattle, and I’m in the radio tower shadow of Capitol Hill, and I can’t get over-the-air television in my house in the middle of Seattle. So they’re aiming this service at people who don’t want to subscribe to cable or satellite TV, but want over-the-air broadcast in digital quality because it’s all digital TV now anyway.”

The idea behind launching in New York, besides it being the largest city in the country, is that many New Yorkers experience a canyon effect where all the tall buildings can block access to these over-the-air signals. So Aereo would mean those people wouldn’t have to watch like that and wouldn’t necessarily need to sign up for cable.

Of course, that’s all dependent on Aereo being allowed to legally exist, and that’s a bit of a question mark right now. Notice I said the service was scheduled to launch today. Kevin Goldberg expects this case to go all the way to the Supreme Court eventually. “It’s going to be massive,” he says. “I mean, we’ve been building towards this moment for a few years now, all the while chipping away the illegalities, getting it to a point where we’re basically at one issue, and I think we’re getting close to that one issue here: can you ever allow direct, Internet transmission of a broadcast signal in any way.”

So that’s Aereo. It will either change TV forever or get shot down in flames by a court of law.

Also on today’s program: you can bring in your old DVDs and Blu-Rays to Walmart and, for a fee, they’ll give you access to watch those movies online. You get convenience but you’re still paying twice for your movies. We discuss the pros and cons. 

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