Aereo: How It Works and How It’s Working So Far

Aereo, the Barry Diller-backed IPTV system, so far works on Apple iOS devices, Apple TV and with the Roku box. It has been available to New Yorkers now for a free trial for three weeks now — and as a $12 a month subscription service. So far the reception is good. Here’s what we know about how this so-called “remote DVR” miniaturized antennae and data center-based IPTV system works.

People who cut the cable or satellite TV cord to receive their television over the Internet — in New York City, for starters — now have the ability to watch more than 20 over-the-air local TV broadcasts on their digital devices, too. Well, some of them, anyway.

Aereo, the Barry Diller-backed IPTV system, so far works on Apple iOS devices, Apple TV and with the Roku box. It has been available to New Yorkers for a free trial for three weeks now — and as a $12 a month subscription service. So far the reception is good, judging from tweets at least. Twelve dollars a month sounds like a lot for the service, but consider the alternative.

Aereo’s website — still only partly functional — doesn’t go into much depth into how the system works. A tech description is limited to what’s in the video above and the following on its FAQ page:

Aereo is a technology platform that enables you to watch live broadcast television at home or on the go. With your Aereo membership, you also get a remote, cloud-based DVR to set and watch recordings. To use Aereo all you need is a standard Web browser or a compatible internet-enabled mobile device, no new boxes or cables.

According to the Aereo FAQ, when you join the service, Aereo assigns you “a miniaturized, private, remote antenna and DVR.” Aereo tech lets viewers access the antenna and DVR via a browser and a supported Internet-enabled device, so far limited to Roku, Apple TV and iOS-based Apple mobile devices such as the iPad and iPhone.

“Once you’ve connected to your antenna,” Aereo explains, Aereo lets you “access all major broadcast networks live in HD and use your remote DVR to set recordings and watch your favorite shows when you want … when you tune to a live program from the Guide, you instruct your assigned antenna housed at the Aereo data center to tune to the channel the show is on and pass the digital broadcast stream to your remote DVR.”

The so-called “remote DVR,” Aereo reps say, includes several components that prepare and stream it to your net-connected device. According to the FAQ:

Your DVR records the program as you watch it, giving you the ability to pause or rewind the live stream. When you record, you record three separate unique copies of the show, each in a different bit rate optimized for different streaming conditions. The lowest bit rate file is ideal for streaming over 3G connections. The medium rate file will work well over most Wifi connections. The highest rate file is intended for really fast broadband connections. While watching, you can choose the Video Quality on your device. If you select “auto” you will automatically choose the best bit rate for your current network conditions. When you are finished watching the show, your recorded files are removed from your DVR and do not count against your DVR storage space allotment.

When you hit record or schedule the recording of a show on the some 20 stations it receives, an “assigned antenna housed at the Aereo data center to tune to the channel the show is on and pass the digital broadcast stream to your remote DVR.” It is not unlike watching a program live and recording it, the company says. “As with watching a live program, you record three separate unique copies of the show, each in a different bit rate. Unlike watching live, you save these files until you choose to delete them from your DVR. When you play a recorded show, you can manually select which file to view by setting the Video Quality option on your device. If you select “auto” you automatically choose the best bit rate for your current network conditions

Aereo works on the iPad, iPad 2 and, according to its site, the iPhone 4 (or higher) and iPod Touch 4 (or higher). TV support currently — and predictably — is for the Apple TV and the Roku system, execs say, adding that more device support is around the corner.

Aereo so far is declining a deeper look at its technology. Aereo reps say CEO Chaitanya Kanojia has “more than” 14 patents. On what, exactly? I searched through the US Patent Office database, but found only one patent, which was sold to Microsoft when it acquired his previous company. Perhaps the patents have been assigned to IAC, Diller’s firm, to which a Wikipedia search on Aereo redirects.

In terms of patent applications, I found just one for Kanojia — it received a final rejection on May 12, 2011, according to the US PTO. Neither patent was related to signal processing, DVR systems, cloud-based TV recording and streaming or antenna design.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As everyone predicted, big local network affiliates are suing Aereo. Aereo’s answer is right here in this Bloomberg video — and its whole defense hinges around its personal antenna design and data center-based delivery mechanism.

Aereo says its antennae are dime-sized. Consider the size of your rabbit ears, if you have them, or rooftop TV antennae. Optimal antenna size is determined by the signal wavelength, so the optimal length of a simple rabbit ear antenna would be approximately one to eight feet, depending on what channel you are watching. I am not saying a dime-sized TV antenna with a lot of digital signal processing behind it could not receive channel 2, but this does bare some investigation.

I am half joking, but I can’t help imagining that the dime-size antennae might be fakes — hiding a real, large antenna that is really grabbing the broadcast signal. It reminds me of the Mechanical Turk, a chess playing “machine” with a midget hidden inside.

What is very real is the legal firepower Aereo is going to need to defend against legal assault, particularly that of well-heeled local affiliates in New York. These are some of the largest stations in the world. As more customers the world over choose to nix the cord, cut the cable and rely on IPTV, this battle will turn into excellent spectator sport.

Stay tuned.

3 Comments

  • The headline is incredibly msleading. It neither explains the process, at least to any degree greater than what is already available on the web, nor is it a hands on review. Further, it doesn’t even recap the multitde of positive articles that have been written about the product…by people that have actually tested it.

    The article is a borderline personal attack on the CEO and questions the veracity of statements that the author is in no position to judge.

    I have no idea how the aereo process works but I sincerely doubt that this is some kind of scam, akin to the turk, being perpetrated on the citizens of NYC and the Aereo investors. By the Authors own admission Kanojia did have a patent that was sold, along with a previous company, to Microsoft. Does the Author think that was a scam too?

    I personally am a cord cutter and am excited that someone has figured out how to breakup the codified monopoly granted to the broadcasters. Broadcasters have actively stifled innovation and prevented the public from enjoying content on the device of their own choosing. What difference does it make if I consme the content on an expensive flat panel or less expensive iPad? Why am I tied to my living room?

    Aereo may not ultimately be the solution I choose but there is no reason why I need to stick with some viewing paradigm created in the 1950’s.

  • Bob,

    Let’s start with the title. I have to agree with you on the first part — how it works. The draft of the article linked to our earlier coverage explaining how Aereo worked (http://anewdomain.net2012/02/18/aereo-brings-tv-to-the-internet/), but it was accidently deleted in copy editing. The second part — how it’s working — was summed up with a list of postive tweets from beta testers.

    I surely didn’t mean a personal attack on the CEO. I could not find patents relating to antenna design or signal processing, and contacted two Aereo spokespeople. Neither one could point me to relevant patents or applications. I also requested interviews with engineers or copies of white papers and was rebuffed.

    I truly hope they can demonstrate their technology and prevail in court because I am also a cord cutter and agree with your assessment of the industry. I can get local channels with a rabbit ears antenna, but understand that many people in New York, with its tall buildings, may not be able to.

    In the long run, I’m confident that local stations will either stream their content themselves or contract with someone like Aereo to do it for them without resorting to individual antennas — local advertsing is lucrative. One day we will be able to watch local TV from every city.