Barry Diller, Aereo: Tiny Antennae and Great Big Lawsuits?

It makes it a lot easier to give up cable or satellite TV if your local broadcast channels work on your streaming digital devices, too. Aereo, funded in part by billionaire Barry Diller, says it has found a way to do just that, using thousands of dime-sized antennae.

Single Aereo antenna, smaller than a dime

A single Aereo antenna, smaller than a dime. (Image Credit: Aereo)

NEW YORK: It makes it a lot easier to give up cable or satellite TV if it’s possible to get an Internet feed of your local TV channels, channels that are broadcast over the air — such as your local news. Local channels plus a streaming device like a Roku box or an Apple TV is all the TV a lot of people want or need.

It’s an interesting reversal. Cable TV companies began by providing TV to people too far from transmitters to receive broadcasts. Now Aereo is aiming to do just the opposite.

Aereo — formerly named Bamboom — is trying to beat the cable companies at their own game by offering Internet access to over-the-air TV signals. Some analysts say the networks will try to stop Aereo in its tracks on behalf of their local affiliates by suing. But Aereo has one powerful backer in its investor, media mogul and  billionaire,  Barry Diller. And you’ve got to believe he’s done some due diligence here.

Aereo has $20.5 million in funding from Diller, execs announced this week. And it plans to provide 20 broadcast channels to New York City viewers in March. It already has launched to a smaller group as an invite-only service. After New York, it will roll out city by city, Aereo execs said at a press conference on Friday.

Aereo captures and streams the local signal, making it available via any HTML5-capable browser to TVs, tablets, smartphones or anything else connected to the Internet. At the Friday press event, Aereo execs demonstrated the kids’ show Bob the Builder running on an Apple iPad. Support for iOS-devices will come first, execs said.

The $12-per-month subscription service will include access to a 40-hour DVR in the cloud, execs added. This of course doesn’t include access to premium cable channels.

New York is the ideal place to start. There’s a need. Ironically, like the rural folks cable television originally served, many New Yorkers have trouble receiving local broadcasts over the air due to the city’s tall buildings. Skyscrapers, like the mountains around San Francisco and other cities, block signals. And buildings will even reflect them, causing out-of-sync so-called multi-path ghost signals.

A lot of people in large cities pay cable companies just so they can get a clear view of what is otherwise free TV.

Aereo can’t just set up a giant antenna and pick up over-the-air signals to stream to customers. Two other companies — ivi TV and FilmOn — have tried to stream TV over the Internet that way and found themselves in litigation for copyright infringement from networks and cable companies demanding payment.

So Aereo is set up around New York at undisclosed locations with arrays of tiny antennae, each smaller than a dime, supposedly picking up broadcast TV signals. Aereo says it will assign each customer his or her own antenna.

Array of Aereo antennae on boards

Image credit: InformITV

Most onlookers expect Aereo, like companies who tried to capture local broadcasts in the past, to get sued anyway by broadcast TV providers and by cable companies whose business models are threatened by this technology.

Aereo might argue that its one-antenna-per-customer solution is dramatically different from ivi TV and FilmOn. Rather, they could say it is more like Slingbox, which avoids copyright-infringement claims and the retransmission fees cable companies are obliged to pay to TV networks. It avoids them pointing out that it is merely re-transmitting the signal its chstomers already get.

Because an Aereo antenna is picking up a freely available over-the-air signal on your behalf, it’s just another antenna, right? I bet that’s what Diller is betting on, but we’ll see.

Check out a packed array of Aereo antennae, below.

Another view of a packed array of Aereo antennae

Image credit: InformITV

Now such short antennae would seem to be incompatible with longer-wave television frequencies. Aereo hasn’t said, but it must be doing a lot of digital signal processing here. Like WiFi, it might be using information in reflected waves to create or re-create a clean signal.

It’ will be interesting to see how well this works. And to watch the inevitable legal battle unfold.

About the author

Larry Press

Based in Los Angeles, Larry Press is a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a senior editor covering tech issues here at aNewDomain.net. Check his Google+ profile to contact him or see what else he is up to: http://bit.ly/viXqr4.

4 Comments

  • I am rooting for Aero. Maybe this will force cable and satellite providers into an a la carte service. Don’t get me wrong, i LOVE my DirecTV. It’s got really good quality bandwidth for my HD signals. Much better than my previous provider (TWC). It’s also MUCH CHEAPER than what I previously paid. Yet I still get the Lifetime Movie Network. I don’t want that channel, I don’t watch that channel, but I’m sure it’s still rolled into my monthly fee.

    DVR is convenient, but it’s I use it as a backup in case I can’t get the content online already by other means.

    Nice post, Mr. Press. Thnx for the info.

    -RAP, II

  • […] When I wrote about Aereo at its February 2012 launch, I was skeptical about the dime-sized antenna a… 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. […]