Larry Press: Aereo Antenna Tech Explainer, Patents and Why You Should Care



Patent diagram of Aereo’s array of dime-sized antennas

I’ve been covering Aereo’s effort to stream local TV online since it launched — and, predictably, immediately got sued by broadcasters who want everyone to watch their broadcasts over the air.

This week, Aereo won the first battle of what’s sure to be a nasty war.

A New York  judge ruled against ABC TV and other media outlets who were trying to stop Aereo, recently launched in beta in New York City, from doing business. The media outlets are appealing, but I’ve got to tell you. I’m rooting for Aereo, the Barry Diller backed startup with antenna array tech that will make it easier than ever to cut the cord.

Click here to read the full decision from July 11 rejecting the ABC-requested injunction and for the original complaint.

I’m rooting for Aereo because I want to see all local TV online one day.

As a cord cutter, I am willing to pay for video content I want.

I’ve got Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions — and I just paid $29 to stream the Tour de France.

I am lucky in that I can watch local TV over the air with a rabbit ears antenna. All of my local stations transmit from the same mountain top, Mount Wilson, so I don’t even have to play around with the antenna.

If I lived a long way from Mount Wilson or was surrounded by tall buildings in a city like New York, I would be out of luck with my rabbit ears, but I would be willing to pay Aereo or anyone else a reasonable fee for local channels — either all of them or ala carte.

The suits against Aereo claim that they are rebroadcasting copyrighted material. Aereo counters that they have developed technology enabling them to assign each user his or her own dime-sized antenna, either permanently or dynamically when they log in. It was as if the user had mounted their antenna at Aereo’s location instead of on their own rooftop.

Yesterday, Judge Alison Nathan of the United States District Court in Manhattan denied a request for a temporary injunction stopping Aereo from offering their service pending the outcome of a trial.

Aereo won a skirmish, but notthe war. Their case still hinges upon the claim that those dime-sized antennas are independent of each other, and each is rented to a different user.

When I wrote about Aereo at its February 2012 launch, I was skeptical about the dime-sized antenna array technology it was touting. I mean, take a look at your rabbit ears or rooftop antenna — it’s a lot bigger than a dime. That’s because optimal antenna size is determined by signal wavelength, and the optimal length of a rabbit ears antenna would be about one to eight feet, depending on which channel you were watching. The antenna would also have to be oriented correctly for best reception.

I am not qualified to say that a dime-sized TV antenna with a fixed orientation is not possible with enough design and signal processing smarts, but it would be quite an engineering feat. Mum at first about its tech and patents, in the USPTO database you can see Aereo’s four patent applications.

  • 20120127363 – Antenna system with individually addressable elements in dense array
  • 20120127374 – System and method for providing network access to antenna feeds
  • 20120129479 – Method and system for processing antenna feeds using separate processing pipelines
  • 20120131621 – System and method for providing network access to individually recorded content

As is typical with patent applications, there is considerable overlap. They are great reading. Nevertheless, these applications disclose a successful design for a very small and effective TV antenna.

The court has also had roughly 11 weeks for expedited discovery and briefing on the preliminary injunction motion.

The focus was on the Aereo antenna technology ….

As Judge Nathan states in her opinion:

The only significant factual dispute concerns the operation of Aereo’s antennas. Aereo contends that each of its antennas functions separately to receive the incoming broadcast signals. Plaintiffs assert that Aereo’s antennas function collectively as a single antenna, aided by a shared metallic substructure.

Each side presented paid expert testimony. And the experts disagreed.

The plaintiff’s expert was Dr. John Volakis. In her ruling the judge summarized Dr. Volakis finding as follows

… the antennas do not function independently. Instead, according to Dr. Volakis, the antennas are packed on the board so close together that the incoming signal “does not see the loops as separate elements, but rather as one continuous piece of metal,” the function of which is further aided by a common metal substructure formed by the circuit boards and the metal rails.

It’s no surprise that the defendant’s experts, Dr. Pozar and Dr. Horowitz, disagreed. The judge writes that:

Dr. Pozar and Dr. Horowitz maintain that the construction of the antenna system requires the antennas to function independently, and Dr. Horowitz has observed numerous (if small) differences in recordings of the same program created by two different antennas. … Moreover, tests performed at the Aereo site demonstrate that the signal received by Aereo’s antennas is 1,000 times stronger than that needed for reliable reception.

Is it an array of small antennas or one big antenna? The judge concluded the discussion of the antennas by stating:

Based on the evidence at this stage of the proceedings, the Court finds that Aereo’s antennas function independently. That is to say, each antenna separately receives the incoming broadcast signal, rather than functioning collectively with the other antennas or with the assistance of the shared metal substructure.

That had to make Aereo fans smile, but it only based on evidence “at this stage of the proceedings.”

We will see whether the case continues and, if it does, how it turns out.

As I said at the start, I am pulling for Aereo or anyone else who can get local TV streamed online. Let’s assume that Aereo’s technology claims are indeed true and they prevail in this case. What then?

As much as I hope Aereo wins, they have created a kludge to work around the copyright laws. It would be simpler for local stations to stream their content themselves, eliminating the need for Aereo.

What might Aereo do if the local stations were to do that? For a start they might give up their antennas and do the streaming for the local stations. Their patents cover transcoding and indexing content — they could provide streaming service to local stations.

Furthermore, if those antennas can really pull in a signal 1,000 time stronger than that needed for reliable reception, I want one. In fact I want more than one. Again, it would be a lot less kludgy to just sell the antennas to end users who cannot get local stations with a rabbit ears antenna, but could with an Aereo powered antenna. If the antenna works well, it could take over the indoor antenna market.

I guess I am rooting for Aereo’s technology. If the technology works, Aereo wins even if they don’t make it as a streaming company.

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  • Armisis

    I dont get it, the old hand held TV’s what’s the difference from having it built into my phone? stupid… 

    • lpress

      Aereo is in beta now — streaming local channels over the Net — you can view them on a TV set or iOS device.  You also get a DVR in the cloud and can stream from that rather than live.

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