Published: Jan 12, 2013 07:00 PM
Modified: Jan 09, 2013 04:15 PM
Chances are you haven’t heard of Aereo (outside the late, unlamented Windows Vista), but you will before summer. Gird your loins, Geeks: Another disruptive technology is on the way to Durham and the Research Triangle.
Billionaire media mogul Barry Diller has his hand in this one, which suggests deep pockets for a protracted war of attrition against over-the-air and cable TV providers. Aereo is the next step in the evolution of video over the Internet.
Live TV over the Internet and the way Aereo does it could be a steel-cage match in the courts. Aereo is already operating in New York City, though its legal authority to glean over-the-air TV signals and pipe them through the Net to individual eyeballs might have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Aereo announced last week that it had secured $38 million for expansion of its service into 22 new markets, Durham and the Triangle among them. While this isn’t likely to mollify techs still smoldering over Verizon’s failure to bless the region with superfast FiOS cable, the Lamborghini of Internet speed, Aereo is all about content, not carriage.
Live TV via the Net raises thorny copyright issues, just as Sony’s Betamax video recorder did more than 30 years ago. Yet, Sony prevailed in the courts (even as it lost the format war to VHS) and the result was disruption unlike anything the entertainment industry had seen since the movies killed vaudeville.
Ordinarily, the networks and local TV stations would have a stronger case against Aereo than the movie studios had against Sony. After all, Aereo plucks copyrighted content from the ether and provides it to subscribers for $8 a month. The networks and locals get nothing.
So how does Aereo get away with it?
By assigning each subscriber a thumbnail antenna that looks rather like a miniature garden gate. A subscriber’s antenna sits alongside thousands of others in a central office.
The TV networks denounce this as unalloyed theft of content. But is it? Aereo says it isn’t reselling content, it’s merely renting antennas to subscribers. Thus each subscriber gets an individual bitstream, as free of copyright infringement as one coming down a conventional rooftop antenna.
It’s a brilliant twist on the Betamax precedent. A federal judge in the Big Apple thought so too in 2012, ruling for Aereo and setting into motion the crucial appeals process.
Whatever becomes of Aereo’s bid to upend the familiar broadcast and cable TV model, the networks and cable vendors still have some arrows in their quivers.
For one thing, cable systems can impose Internet bit caps. Time Warner doesn’t impose bit caps in the Research Triangle and without doubt will run into fierce headwinds if it ever opts for metered usage here. That alone would stagger Aereo, Netflix, Hulu and similar Internet-based services in this market, if not kill them outright.
But will it come to that? If history is a beacon in the night for disruptive technologies, no.
Sure, Aereo might lose in the appellate courts. Or its business model might fail. Or Barry Diller might go bankrupt. But in the broad sweep of events, one thing is certain: Like television and the Internet itself, Aereo or whatever bold stroke might follow it is not a medium, but a message. Bob Wilson is a retired journalist and teacher. He lives in southwest Durham.
All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be published, broadcast or redistributed in any manner.