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Aereo Declared Illegal by Supreme Court; 6-3 Decision is Certain to End Streaming Venture

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“We did try, but it’s over now.” — Barry Diller, a major investor in Aereo

The multibillion dollar broadcasting conglomerates that control over-the-air television and most cable networks got everything they wanted today from a 6-3 decision in the U.S. Supreme Court that declared Aereo, an independent provider of online over-the-air television streams, illegal.

The court’s liberal justices joined Chief Justice John Roberts and moderate Anthony Kennedy in a complete repudiation of the legality of Aereo’s business model — selling over the air television signals received by individual tiny antennas and streamed over the Internet — without seeking permission from the stations involved. In a sweeping ruling, the court found that no matter the technology involved, any effort to resell access or copies of television programs without the permission of the copyright holders is illegal. “We conclude that Aereo is not just an equipment supplier,” Justice Breyer wrote in the opinion. “We do not see how the fact that Aereo transmits via personal copies of programs could make a difference.”

Aereo CEO and founder Chet Kanojia quickly released a statement declaring the decision “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,” Kanojia said. “We are disappointed in the outcome, but our work is not done. We will continue to fight for our consumers and fight to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”

That is news to Barry Diller, perhaps Aereo’s biggest investor. He has said for months if Aereo loses in the Supreme Court, the service will be shut down. He repeated that today on CNBC.

“We did try, but it’s over now.” Diller said.

Image: Wall Street Journal

Image: Wall Street Journal

Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman under the Clinton Administration, said despite the fact the ruling may inconvenience Aereo subscribers, the court wasn’t wrong in its decision.

“Aereo has very little chance surviving in the business and Barry Diller got his hands caught in the regulatory cookie jar,” Hundt said. “You can’t use technological tricks to bypass [cable network] rules and regulations. I think that’s a very reasonable decision.”

Observers worried about the impact the Aereo case might have on ancillary services unintentionally caught up in any broad legal language, but the court appeared to carefully avoid those complications.

The ruling leaves antenna manufacturers unaffected because antenna users simply capture over-the-air signals for reception in the home without paying the kind of ongoing subscription fees Aereo charged its customers.

The decision also protects the legality of cloud computing, DVR recordings, and other new technologies not directly related to the lawsuit. “We agree with the Solicitor General that “[q]uestions involving cloud computing, [remote storage] DVRs, and other novel issues not before the Court, as to which ‘Congress has not plainly marked [the] course,’ should await a case in which they are squarely presented,” Breyer wrote.

The court’s liberal wing shared Breyer’s opinion. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan all voted in favor of broadcasters including Walt Disney (ABC), Comcast (NBC), CBS Corp., and FOX.

Conservatives slammed the majority ruling against Aereo, claiming the court was bending over backwards for Hollywood and giant broadcasting conglomerates. Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent ripped the majority’s ruling, claiming it would “sow confusion for years to come.” Scalia predicts there will be plenty of new litigation before the courts on issues related to online transmission of copyright works as a result of today’s decision.

Although Aereo was still pre-registering customers as of this afternoon, that isn’t likely to stay true for much longer. Aereo’s only bid to stay alive is to seek licensing agreements with the stations it distributes over its service. With broadcasters’ strengthened hand, it is unlikely they will be receptive to pricing agreements that would allow Aereo to continue providing service for $8 a month. Major cable and satellite operators are signing retransmission consent agreements with volume discounts that run above $1 a month per subscriber for each television station in a local area. In most cities, that would amount to at least $5 a month, but Aereo will likely face even higher costs because it lacks access to discounts.

CNN attempts to explain the meaning of the Aereo case to its less-informed viewers with mixed success. But the story explains why this is relevant to cord cutters. (4:41)

Bloomberg News reports the Aereo case was a decisive victory for programmers who now have a strengthened hand asking for more compensation during retransmission consent negotiations with cable and satellite providers. (1:55)

Broadcasters called today’s victory “pro-consumer” but that is open to debate. Bloomberg News digs deeper into what this case means for DVR and cloud storage services as well. (5:26)

Wall Street is rewarding big television networks and station owner groups with higher stock prices after winning a decisive victory against Aereo, Bloomberg reports. (2:35)

Comcast Promises Wonderland of Broadband Ecstacy if Time Warner Cable Deal Goes Through

Phillip Dampier May 7, 2014 Aereo, Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Editorial & Site News, Net Neutrality, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't, TWC (see Charter), Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Comcast Promises Wonderland of Broadband Ecstacy if Time Warner Cable Deal Goes Through
Neil Smit, CEO Comcast Cable (left), Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch (right)

Neil Smit, CEO, Comcast Cable (left), Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch (right)

Of all the tech companies to turn up at TechCrunch’s Disrupt New York 2014 event, Comcast Cable seemed the least likely to qualify as the kind of innovative start-up TechCrunch loves to cover.

But there sat Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit with TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler, discussing Comcast’s mega-merger with Time Warner Cable, its peering agreement with Netflix, broadcast TV streamer Aereo, and Comcast’s legendary dismal customer service.

Smit’s arrival on stage to a smattering of tentative applause was a clear sign there was no love for the cable giant in the audience, particularly from many New York area Time Warner Cable customers dreading a future with Comcast.

Smit was immediately confronted with the fact Comcast was recently voted the Worst Company in America by Consumerist readers, prompting yet another promise that improving customer service was Comcast’s “top priority,” the same promise Comcast gave in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

“I think if there’s one thing to disrupt in our business, it’s customer service,” Smit added.

Smit defended Comcast’s merger with Time Warner, relying heavily on video subscribers to downplay the concentrated market power Comcast would have after the merger. Smit pointed out Netflix has the largest subscriber count of any pay television channel or platform and denied Lawler’s contention that a merger would give Comcast more than 50% of the American broadband market.

“I think the number is a little less than that — it is closer to 40% but if you include wireless than it would be less than 20%,” Smit responded, referring to the LTE 4G wireless networks from wireless carriers that come with very low usage caps and very high prices.

Comcast-LogoSmit also promised major broadband speed upgrades and other improvements for Time Warner Cable customers, but nobody mentioned Comcast’s gradual reintroduction of usage caps on residential broadband accounts.

Comcast Cable’s CEO also addressed several other hot button issues:

Smit claimed Comcast has a good working relationship with the FCC and is providing advice on whatever changes to Net Neutrality FCC chairman Tom Wheeler will propose later this month.

Despite the fact Comcast could ultimately benefit if Aereo is found to be legal by the U.S. Supreme Court, Smit recognized Comcast also owns NBC and other broadcast programmers and was concerned about the economic impact if cable operators stopped paying for over-the-air programming.

“We pay $9 billion a year for content,” Smit said. “One of the things that I question in the Aereo solution is: are they paying for content? The spend for that content has to come from somewhere.”

Smit also noted Comcast is increasingly targeting younger audiences by signing deals with college campuses to bring Comcast service to students to hook them as future subscribers. Comcast is also creating new packages with fewer channels to appeal to millennials. Smit also acknowledged many younger family members are accessing cable programming using passwords associated with their parent’s cable account.

Here is the complete interview TechCrunch conducted with Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit. (22:20)

Aereo Faces the Supreme Court Next Week in All-or-Nothing Appeal

aereo_logoAereo will face off with broadcasters next week in the U.S. Supreme Court over the legality of the online video provider’s business plan — using dime-sized individual antennas to receive over-the-air local stations and stream them to paying subscribers over the Internet.

On April 22, Aereo will appeal for its future as it presents its case to the high court in defense of a consumer’s right to access local stations over the air, even if a third-party installs an antenna on their behalf.

Broadcasters consider Aereo just another end run around copyright law, arguing the online service has no right to profit off the resale of their signals to consumers without permission and compensation.

Today Aereo launched a website, ProtectMyAntenna.org that frames its legal case as a basic viewing rights issue. Aereo says the broadcasters’ intransigence is nothing new — they also fought cable television and the videocassette recorder in the courts in the past, suggesting both technologies were stealing their signals.

protect my antenna“What is at stake in this case is much bigger than Aereo,” says the website. “We believe that consumers are entitled to use a modern, cloud-based, version of an antenna and DVR and that consumers should not be constrained to 1950’s era technology to watch free-to-air broadcast television. The broadcasters’ positions in this case, if sustained, would impair cloud innovation and threaten the myriad benefits to individuals, companies, and the economy at large of the advances in cloud computing and cloud storage.”

The Obama Administration has sided with the broadcasters and is seeking time to speak before the Court on the broadcasters’ behalf. Consumer groups are largely lined up behind Aereo, claiming online video competition is something worth protecting.

The crux of the case is likely to be which side is correct in their interpretation of what defines a “public performance,” which makes all the difference in determining whether Aereo must pay broadcasters or not. Private viewing at home is protected by earlier case-law and if Aereo is found to simply be facilitating home viewing, it will likely be deemed legal. Aereo assigns a single antenna to each customer, a fact they hope will strengthen its argument they are not redistributing programming to the masses. How the signal gets to the customer, over an antenna cable or the Internet, should not make any difference.

Broadcasters are hoping for a different interpretation — one popular in California courts, that would find any redistribution of programming over the Internet to be a public performance. Several other ventures have tried to launch virtual cable systems that streamed over the air stations and all were quickly shut down by west coast courts. Aereo has better lawyers, deeper pockets, and apparently a better argument that won favor in several eastern U.S. courts last year.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide Aereo’s fate. If it loses, expect it to close down operations immediately. If Aereo wins, the company expects to continue expanding into other television markets across the country.

Aereo currently provides service in 11 U.S. cities.

Katie Couric from Yahoo! News sat down for an extensive interview about Aereo with its CEO Chet Kanojia. Kanojia argues broadcasters were already well-compensated when they received free spectrum for their stations. (20:20)

Aereo Coming to Austin March 3; Residents Can Pre-Register Now

Phillip Dampier February 24, 2014 Aereo, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment
Aereo's over the air antenna is about the size of a dime.

Aereo’s over the air antenna is about the size of a dime.

Aereo is coming to Austin in March.

Already available in four other Texas cities, Aereo will allow Austin residents to watch local over-the-air television stations on mobile devices, tablets or home computers through live video streaming.

Aereo will accept customers for its Austin service from these counties: Bastrop, Blanco, Burnet, Caldwell, Fayette, Gillespie, Hays, Lee, Llano, Mason, Travis and Williamson.

Customers are invited to sign up early for the waiting list on their website to get the service first when it launches March 3. Aereo Austin subscribers will be able to record and watch 19 over-the-air channels, at rates starting at $8 a month.

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