The Death of AEREO, and Why I Am Perplexed

AEREO was effectively killed this morning, and with it we the consumers lost out big time. The thing is, I’m rather confused about why there is such an issue with a service I’ve been using for the past few months and absolutely loving. Here’s why I’m perplexed, and why the ruling makes absolutely no sense to me.AEREO is an interesting approach to video. Each of us who has been paying the company a few dollars a month effectively “rents” a small antenna. The legal fiction is that the antenna picks up over the air signals and sends it to me. What actually happens is that, once logged into my account I am able to watch any channel that has an over the air broadcast and save it to the company’s servers if I want to watch it later. The Supreme Court effectively said that they are breaking copyright laws and the work around with the antennas simply doesn’t resolve copyright issues raised by the cable companies.


A statement from the company’s founder and CEO (or should I say former company) included the following

Today’s decision by the United States Supreme Court is a massive setback for the American consumer. We’ve said all along that we worked diligently to create a technology that complies with the law, but today’s decision clearly states that how the technology works does not matter. This sends a chilling message to the technology industry. It is troubling that the Court states in its decision that, ‘to the extent commercial actors or other interested entities may be concerned with the relationship between the development and use of such technologies and the Copyright Act, they are of course free to seek action from Congress.’ (Majority, page 17) That begs the question: Are we moving towards a permission-based system for technology innovation?

Consumer access to free-to-air broadcast television is an essential part of our country’s fabric. Using an antenna to access free-to-air broadcast television is still meaningful for more than 60 million Americans across the United States. And when new technology enables consumers to use a smarter, easier to use antenna, consumers and the marketplace win. Free-to-air broadcast television should not be available only to those who can afford to pay for the cable or satellite bundle.

[Emphasis mine]

Here’s why I don’t understand the AEREO ruling, and what my problem with it is.

1. The service only gives me over the air television programs. I’m not able to get premium channels and, in fact, I’m not even able to get basic cable channels. What the company was serving me was exactly the same thing that I can get if I put up an antenna at home. The only difference is that it also function as a DVR. So how is this company’s approach stealing content when over the air television isn’t?

2. I was only able to use the service when I was in my home location. When I’m traveling out of the country, I’m not able to access anything. In fact, when I’m up in the country I’m not able to access the service because it’s not available there. It is exceptionally limited, and it really only works when I’m in my home location.

3. The service wasn’t offering anything I can’t get through another company, and in fact what I can get through those other companies is far, far more disruptive to standard cable television approaches. For example if I purchase a TiVo box, I not only can get over the air TV, but I can also get premium channels. I can record them and watch them at a later time; I can transfer them to a mobile device, or use the latest technology stream to watch when I’m not at home. And yes, I can use the control on my TiVo remote to skip commercials, thereby bypassing the main revenue stream that the company gets.So now it looks like I’ll go back, get a new TiVo box and get a new subscription to TiVo. Yes, I’ll end up paying substantially more than I was, but I’ll also get premium channels, and I will be storing my videos locally rather than on someone else’s server. So what did the cable companies gain today?

By using AEREO, I was effectively grabbing the over the air signal that I could grab on my own, but I was using a service to do it. I was paying that service a fee in order to have the privilege of doing this, and then was able to watch those over the air programs either live or at a later time — but only in a set location. I’m not sure what the issue is here, unless it is the fact that the cable companies are not worried so much about area itself, but rather they are worried about the precedent it sets. Either way, the AEREO decision is a huge loss and something that I am not pleased about.

Update – Email send June 28, 2014:

aereo email

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About the Author

Dan Cohen
Having a father who was heavily involved in early laser and fiber-optical research, Dan grew up surrounded by technology and gadgets. Dan’s father brought home one of the very first video games when he was young and Dan remembers seeing a “pre-release” touchtone phone. (When he asked his father what the “#” and “*” buttons were his dad said, “Some day, far in the future, we’ll have some use for them.”) Technology seemed to be in Dan’s blood but at some point he took a different path and ended up in the clergy. His passion for technology and gadgets never left him. Dan is married to Raina Goldberg who is also an avid user of Apple products. They live in New Jersey with their golden doodle Nava.

2 Comments on "The Death of AEREO, and Why I Am Perplexed"

  1. Here’s what really annoys me about this case, and it’s something that isn’t coming up often enough in my opinion.

    The reason Aereo even exists is because over the air broadcasts were switched to digital signals a few years ago. Remember all those commercials about free adapter boxes if you had an old TV? That was so you could connect a new over the air antenna for people who get broadcast TV via antenna, since the old non-HD signals were being discontinued.

    Aereo’s business model was designed to create that same service but without the expense, risk and hassle of mounting an antenna to your roof. The courts are saying that Aereo is broadcasting and thus needs to pay a “retransmission” fee to the broadcasters. The broadcasters only get these fees from cable companies, because the whole idea of regular broadcast television is that you can get it without cable. But if you kill off Aereo, then you’re left with two choices: mount your own personal HD antenna on the roof, or pay for cable (and good luck finding a cable company that will sell you a package with only basic channels-it’s nearly impossible unless you really fight for it and/or have access to a company willing to do flexible bundles like Verizon FiOS…but that’s a rant for another day.)

    At this point I’m just waiting for CBS to sue some old couple for throwing an antenna on their roof and splitting the signal to all their TVs. After all, why shouldn’t CBS get paid for the signal they’re legally obligated to send over the air? Who’s going to stop them, the FCC? Before or after the FCC lazily rubber stamps the Time Warner/Comcast merger? The FCC is useless.

  2. Dan, while I agree with you, the truth is that the Supreme Court was just following the law. Congress passed the copyright act 20 or 30 some years ago to allow the broadcast tv stations to collect licensing fees from cable tv, satellite tv, and community access tv. I disagree with this law, but it is the law.

    Aereo could pay the same licensing fees as the cable and satellite companies for broadcast tv, but they chose not to, and that was why they were sued.

    I do think that the logic that you are simply renting an antenna rather than placing one yourself sounds great, and I think this should have been the basis for the decision, but Aereo was getting for free what your local cable tv company or satellite tv company had to pay licensing fees for. I think that this is ridiculous – the broadcast tv stations are using the public airways for free, and their signals should be able to be rebroadcast anywhere within their local area. The cable and satellite companies should not have yo pay fees, either, so long as they broadcast everything, including the ads that are broadcast. But, the copyright law does not allow that, so we’re stuck with this ruling.

    Honestly, I am not all that confident that congress or the president are willing to change that. It sucks, but it’s the law.

    I’m going to miss Aereo…

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