Taking Broadcast Over-the-Top
Putting broadcast TV channels directly onto the Internet may have been a non-starter in the Supreme Court, but a lot of entrepreneurs plus a few big media companies still think it’s a good idea—and it can be done—legally.
Nearly two years after the United States Supreme Court dashed Aereo’s concept for retransmission-without-payments, at least a half-dozen companies are developing plans to bundle local broadcast channels into a package that can be transmitted to a special set-top box or via apps to a mobile device. Meanwhile Chet Kanojia, the mastermind behind Aereo, has moved on to another wireless adventure, this time potentially taking on big telecom (rather than big broadcast) with his plan to compete against their wireless broadband initiatives.
About the only constant in this airwaves/copyright/media saga is that it will keep lawyers very busy for the foreseeable future.
Most of the current ventures that plan to deliver local TV to Internet receivers are still very quiet about their specifics.
Launched last fall, Tablet TV (partially backed by Granite Broadcasting Corp. and Britain’s Motive Television plc) promises no subscription fees for its service that uses existing ATSC airwaves to feed local TV channels to a “TPod” palm-sized receiver, which also serves as a DVR. Tablet TV says it will add on-demand packages and “fully-integrated” social TV features.
San Diego-based Telletopia’s web site shows a map of 21 U.S. DMAs where its service will be available, along with a detailed explanation of its plans to work with broadcast licensees. The company believes it can use its non-profit status to retransmit live broadcast feeds over the Internet without a license.
Freecast networks, in Orlando, Fla., has (for now) shifted its focus and operates as a sort of gateway: steering its customers to the web delivery services of broadcast and cable networks as well as local stations. Viewers have to set up the necessary arrangements, such as subscribing to CBS’s “AllAccess” or the networks’ Hulu package. Freecast’s subsidiary Select TV this month begins selling a set-top box for the Internet content plus over-the-top streaming channels.
Atlanta-based Vidgo told TV Technology that it still intends to launch its live linear TV and video-on-demand package by June, as it promised when it debuted at CES in January. But it still offers no details.
FilmOn, a global company that operates its U.S. service from Los Angeles, has been involved in court skirmishes with broadcasters for several years. “We are not doing what [we were] doing in 2014,” explained company spokesman Owen Phillips, referring to its Aereo-like attempt to retransmit local broadcasts. “There are a handful of minor networks that are also on broadcast channels,” he acknowledged, but the core of FilmOn’s OTT service “is from global SVOD sources.”
Tablo TV, based in Kanata, Ont., is built around a DVR recorder that plugs into a digital TV antenna to capture local broadcasts. The device does not include an HDMI connection, but rather hooks into a home network to use Wi-Fi or Ethernet to stream content to any connected device in the home or wherever a customer can access the Internet.
Meanwhile, Charter Communications, which is in the process of acquiring Time Warner Cable, has bought the location-shifting technology that Aereo developed. Although Charter’s specific plans for the patent, acquired from Aereo’s portfolio after it bankruptcy filing, are unknown, the company has indicated that it plans to focus on Internet- delivered services for other initiatives.
And Sling TV, owned by Dish Networks, is edging into direct distribution of broadcast channels. Its $5 per month “Broadcast Extra” bundle has been tested in major markets since early this year, including San Francisco, Los Angles, Chicago and Philadelphia, delivering some local TV channels through Sling online connections.
Moreover, there are totally legal technologies that merely allow viewers to pick up broadcast signals and watch them on a computer. Hauppauge Computer Works has been making TV tuners for PCs and other home devices for more than 25 years. In 2015, the company signed a deal with Microsoft to offer live TV on Xbox One with the company’s WinTV TV tuner, according to Ken Plotkin, Hauppauge president. The company has similar deals with other device makers, often to enable their media players to integrate online services with live TV.
“Live TV is important for things like news and sports events and local content,” Plotkin said. “The main difference is they [his hardware partners] are working on carriage agreements with broadcasters to provide content.
“Everything we manufacture must be plugged into a computer or a computer-based device,” he added, emphasizing that these products can support full ATSC high-definition and are not intended to be used as Internet alternatives. Hauppauge now makes 35 models of its tuners, ranging from $49 to $129 which includes a remote control and blasters.
Many observers expected that the broadcast- to-Internet-without-copyright concept would disappear after the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in June 2014. The court deemed that Aereo violated copyright laws by capturing broadcast signals on miniature antennas and delivering them to subscribers for a fee. Subsequently, Aereo spent several months trying to obtain licenses under the Copyright Act which would have enabled it to operate like a cable company, but a New York court quashed that plan and the company closed its doors in November 2014.
In January of this year, Aereo founder Chet Kanojia unveiled “Starry,” another wireless venture, but this time unrelated to broadcasting. His vision is for a gigabit wireless network that uses unlicensed spectrum for metropolitan-wide distribution. Starry could be a competitor to the wired or wireless 5G (fifth generation) networks that telcos, cable and other operators are developing. Kanojia said that the same antenna technologists who created Aereo’s system are working on Starry and expects to field test the service in Boston, although dates have not yet been specified.
Meanwhile, the companies working on legal alternatives to Aereo are in various stages of visibility. Products such as Tablet TV, Tablo TV, and FreeCast’s Select TV are on the market now at prices ranging from $49 to $179 dollars, while other companies—Telletopia and Vidgo—are in various pre-launch stages.
“After dozens of conversations with local broadcasters, affiliate groups and networks, we know that extending the reach of a 30-second spot to online viewers is just as important as retransmission fees,” Telletopia co-founder/Chief Financial Officer Michael Librizzi told a San Diego newspaper. The company plans to stream local channels to customers in 14 California markets, starting with San Diego, by mid-year at a price of $20 per month.
Telletopia is so intent on building ties to broadcast licensees that its web site includes “FAQs for Broadcasters,” which explains revenue- sharing opportunities. The Telletopia Foundation is structured as a “public-benefit nonprofit corporation and IRS-approved 501(c)(4),” which is a state- chartered group for “social, educational, recreational or charitable purposes.” The company is counting on a pending FCC rulemaking to establish online video program distributor guidelines (FCC MB Docket #: 14-261), to legitimize its business model. Its technology will ingest local over-the-air broadcasts, convert them to Internet streams and then make them available to subscribers via an IP set-top box or mobile device.
FilmOn is focused on two fronts: courts and global markets. In recent months the company beat Fox TV Stations (plus ABC, CBS and NBC) in the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court (San Francisco) but lost to CBS Broadcasting in the Second Circuit Appeals Court (Cincinnati). In both cases, the broadcast networks contended that FilmOn (previously known as “Aereokiller LLC”), was not entitled to a retransmission license because it did not meet the definition of a “cable operator.”
“FilmOn was always clear that it would pay licensing fees in a copyright-friendly way,” Phillips said. “The court rulings have had no impact.”
DEALING WITH BROADCASTERS
In an example of the constant dealmaking in the business, Newsy, an online video news service produced by media giant E.W. Scripps, is being launched on FilmOn this spring. “We’re doing partnerships with various millennial-oriented content providers who see the value of having a linear version,” Phillips said, adding that FilmOn has 74 million viewers per month globally, and its 700 channels of video-on-demand programming include “a handful of minor networks that are also broadcast channels.”
Separately, earlier this year, FilmOn TV Networks bought CinemaNow, which had once been the digital movie streaming service of retail giant Best Buy.
Freecast has been in the TV-to-Internet business for more than five years, with its “Rabbit TV” USB device connected to a TV antenna. It is now focusing on its Select TV service, built around a “One” set-top box, that is being sold online and soon in retail, according to Kevin Speedy, the company’s communications director.
Freecast, which he calls “an ‘old-school’ TV guide,” connects to online sources, including OTT sites and broadcasters’ websites. “Broadcast content is a big part of our offering,” Speedy said, but he added “We don’t license anything; we are not a library.”
“In addition to the VOD available via our service, for our users who want to access their local broadcast stations, we send them HDTV antennas for free,” he explained. (Customers pay for shipping.) “When that local programming becomes available OTT, we’ll be first in line to offer it, but in the meantime, a good old-fashioned antenna is a cheap and easy answer.”
The basic “One” box costs $99.99, and the Windows-based model will sell for $179.99. Subscription fees for the service start with “two buck TV” (in a $24 annual payment) or $2.99 per month.
Vidgo, the secretive new OTT service that debuted at CES in January, is still promising to deliver “three competitively priced packages, with no long-term contracts required.” Its line-up of broadcast and other programming will include live linear premium, sports, movies, music, local and international content, according to Robert Kostensky, Vidgo president/co-founder and a former DirecTV and BellSouth executive. The company intends to be available in 15 markets by June, with full national expansion by year-end.
Tablet TV, the company owned in part by Granite Broadcasting, is more akin to the various mobile TV projects of recent years. Its TPod device includes internal storage capacity of 7 GB, which allows it to capture up to four hours of HDTV content. The device receives live ATSC broadcasts and can be paired solely with the device registered when a customer signs up for the service. It can also be connected to a large-screen TV using an HDMI cable.
CloudAntenna, another San Diego company, is introducing “FreeAir.tv,” using a device that picks up OTA signals on a digital antenna and sends it to a smartphone or tablet, can record shows locally or store them in the cloud. The company is offering its settop box plus first year of basic service for $79 introductory fee; its “Cloud TV” add-on, which enables access to 40 hours of recording, costs $1.99 per month. An expanded “World TV” service that includes Cloud TV plus access to 600 international TV channels and a 100,000 films, costs $9.99 per month.
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