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Locast Plans to Appeal Crippling Court Loss, But Service Shuttered for Now

Phillip Dampier September 2, 2021 Competition, Consumer News, Locast, Online Video 1 Comment

Locast, like Aereo and Ivi before it, has ceased streaming local, over the air television signals on a non-profit basis after a New York federal court judge ruled the service is violating U.S. copyright law by receiving more funding than it needs. But in developments this afternoon, there is word an appeal is planned.

Since January 2018, Locast has attempted to provide its service legally by operating as an independent “translator service,” extending streams of over-the-air signals to viewers within the acknowledged viewing range of the stations. Locast used geofencing technology to block more distant viewers, and sought support for its service with a suggested contribution of $5 a month. Non-paying viewers were nagged with donation request messages that interrupted each stream every 15 minutes.

Despite its limited service areas, Locast amassed over 3 million regular users in its 36 served TV markets over the last three years. That growth represented a threat to lucrative retransmission fee revenue collected by TV station and network owners, who promptly sued Locast in federal court in 2019. A part of that lawsuit was decided Tuesday in favor of the broadcasters.

Judge Louis L. Stanton rejected Locast’s claim it was exempt from Section 111 (a) (5) of the U.S. Copyright Act, which allowed it to stream over the air signals without getting permission from those stations in advance. That section of the Copyright Act was designed to provide a loophole for independent non-profit translator stations, which in some rural areas pick up difficult to receive TV stations and rebroadcast them locally on other channels. Some of these translator operations existed before the days of cable and satellite television, and well before the internet as we know it ever existed. But many of these services were provided through low-power transmitters operated inside large apartment complexes or hotels for the enjoyment of tenants or guests. The Copyright Act allowed groups to retransmit TV signals as long as they lacked “direct or indirect commercial advantage” and did not charge viewers in excess of the “actual and reasonable costs of maintaining and operating the secondary transmission service.”

What got Locast in trouble with the judge is the fact the service nagged viewers to make $5 donations if they wanted the nagging messages to end, and those contributions delivered healthy revenue to Locast of $4.51 million in 2020, while the costs to provide the service were just $2.43 million that same year.

“On those undisputed facts, in 2020 Locast made far more money from user charges than was necessary to defray its costs of maintaining and operating its service,” Judge Stanton wrote. Stanton also rejected arguments that excess revenue was used to expand Locast into new markets, claiming the law was quite clear limiting charges only to the “actual and reasonable costs” incurred providing the service, not for expanding it. Stanton ruled Locast could not charge viewers to raise funds to expand into new markets. Had Judge Stanton accepted Locast’s argument that it was pouring excess revenue into expanding its service, not to make a profit, the broadcaster’s legal case could have been seriously weakened and Locast would have continued operating pending the final disposition of the lawsuit.

Instead, perhaps bowing to the court’s judgment that Locast’s contribution system was hampering its case, last evening Locast notified users it was suspending requests for contributions aired every 15 minutes, and hoped supporters would continue contributions anyway. But early this morning, Locast went further and announced the immediate suspension of its video streaming service.

In an e-mail to supporters, Locast announced:

We are suspending operations, effective immediately.

As a non-profit, Locast was designed from the very beginning to operate in accordance with the strict letter of the law, but in response to the court’s recent rulings, with which we respectfully disagree, we are hereby suspending operations, effective immediately.

Thank you.

Judge Stanton

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has supported Locast with legal assistance in this case, criticized the judge’s ruling.

“We are disappointed that the court ruled against Locast on its copyright defense,” the EFF said in a statement. “The court interpreted the law in an artificially narrow way. Congress wrote copyright’s nonprofit retransmission exception to make sure that every American has access to their local broadcast stations, and expanding access is exactly what Locast does.”

The EFF said Judge Stanton’s ruling may not be the end of Locast, however.

“Locast has decided to suspend its operations. The case will continue, likely including an appeal, to resolve the remaining issues in the case. The problem remains: broadcasters keep using copyright law to control where and how people can access the local TV that they’re supposed to be getting for free,” a lawyer at the EFF said in a statement.

Theoretically, Locast could be restructured to spin off each of its markets into independent non-profit entities responsible for raising funds to maintain current operations and possibly be found “legal” under the U.S. Copyright Act provisions. New markets could be launched independently as well, starting with fundraisers to launch the service and then additional fundraising to maintain each operation.

Any legal appeal would likely be based on Stanton’s determination that “expansion” was disallowed under the Copyright Act, even though most non-profit entities raise funds to expand their operations all the time.

But for now, Locast will likely remain dark until the remaining legal issues are settled or determined.

The Roku/Spectrum War is Over: Spectrum TV Returns to Roku App Store After 9-Month Blackout

Phillip Dampier August 17, 2021 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

A dispute between Charter Communications and Roku over compensating the set-top box maker for distributing the Spectrum TV app in the Roku app store is over after a nine-month impasse that kept new Roku users from accessing the cable company’s streaming TV package.

“Charter Communications and Roku have reached a mutually beneficial agreement to renew distribution of the Spectrum TV App on the Roku platform,” a joint statement announced. “As a result of the renewal, the Spectrum TV App is now available for download from the Roku channel store. We are pleased to renew our partnership and offer this great streaming experience to our shared customers.”

The dispute began when Charter turned down Roku’s demands for an undisclosed form of compensation in return for distributing the Spectrum TV app. Roku removed the app from its app store, but allowed existing versions already downloaded to continue working. The dispute annoyed Spectrum TV customers that found they could not install the streaming TV app on new Roku devices. Roku has at least 54 million active users in the United States. Charter’s solution to cord-cutting is heavily reliant on streaming a budget-priced TV package over independent set-top devices like Roku.

The two companies did not discuss specifics of their final settlement agreement. The Spectrum TV app should be back on Roku’s channel app store today.

 

Maine Raises the Bar on Public Broadband: Will Fund Projects Offering 100/100 Mbps

Maine’s broadband internet authority is proposing major changes to win public financing of broadband projects in the state, demanding better speeds and performance and giving more Maine communities the potential to construct their own public internet projects.

The ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME), which traditionally modestly funds a variety of smaller scale internet projects in the state, wants to think big now that it has a budget over fifteen times its original size. With at least $15 million to spend this year and potentially tens of millions in federal broadband funding to manage, courtesy of Congress and the Biden Administration, the authority wants to make certain future projects can deliver the scale and service consumers need in the 21st century digital economy.

In April, ConnectME’s board voted to propose changing the criteria for broadband funding awards, now insisting that projects be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps service, which is four times faster than the FCC’s current minimum definition of downstream broadband. The board hopes the faster speeds will be future-proof and more realistic of what consumers need to telecommute and access online classes, streaming video, and other high bandwidth services. The result of the proposed standards would likely require all future projects to be fiber to the home, although historically the vast majority of broadband projects funded by ConnectME in the past have been fiber to the home.

The authority has also proposed expanding the definition of what represents an “unserved/underserved” area qualified to receive public funding to include any address that lacks access to at least 50/10 Mbps service, up from the current standard of 25/3 Mbps. Such a change would likely open up funding in areas where only DSL service or wireless internet is currently available. Most cable operators can meet the new standard, so their territories would likely remain closed to public funding. Opposition from the state’s telephone companies was almost instant, however, represented in comments from Ben Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a state telecom lobbying group.

Sanborn considers the proposed changes negative because public dollars could end up funding competitors in areas already served by lower speed providers.

“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn told the Press Herald. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” which could leave currently unserved areas out of getting any funding for service.

At present, about 11% of Maine homes still have no internet access, mostly in rural areas. Traditionally, telephone companies or co-op telecom providers are the most likely to provide rural internet service, but the costs to reach those not currently served can be prohibitive. Cable operators have been the least likely to extend service in rural areas, and cash-strapped telephone companies have been reluctant to replace rural copper wire networks that can extend for miles with fiber optics, just to reach a few dozen homes. As broadband penetration increases, the cost to reach remaining unserved homes typically rises as they are often the most costly to reach. Subsidy funding can make a considerable difference when determining the cost/benefit analysis of expanding service to these homes.

The authority is also hoping to inspire existing providers to adopt 100/100 Mbps as the new broadband speed minimum across the state, which it claims will meet the needs of customers. For cable providers, that likely will not happen until upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 are implemented, unlikely in the short term. Cable broadband networks are designed to deliver much faster downstream speeds at the expense of uploads.

The newly available funds are likely to achieve a significant increase in the number of rural homes served, but probably will not be enough to achieve 100% penetration.

ConnectME plans a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes on May 13, with a final vote scheduled for later this month.

Locast Comes to Cleveland

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2021 Consumer News, Locast, Online Video 1 Comment

Cleveland, Ohio area residents now have access to over 70 over-the-air channels from northeast Ohio thanks to the efforts of Locast, a nonprofit service that streams local broadcast stations online with the request of a monthly donation.

The Cleveland broadcast market includes the cities of Cleveland, Akron, Ashland, Ashtabula, Canton, Mansfield, and Sandusky and encompasses almost four million viewers. Locast’s app and website use location verification to provide service only to those living or traveling inside one of their 30 service areas. To access Cleveland-area stations, online viewers must be inside Ashland, Ashtabula, Carroll, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Holmes, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage, Richland, Stark, Summit, Tuscarawas, or Wayne County.

Among the stations included: WKYC NBC 3, WEWS ABC 5, WJW FOX 8, WOIO CBS 19, PBS and PBS Kids, as well as DABL, Univision, Azteca America, CourtTV, Mystery, MeTV, TrueCrime, QUBO, Circle, The CW, BOUNCE, Movies!, LAFF, COMET, cheddar, ION, GRIT, Charge!, and more.

Locast now has more than 2.5 million registered users nationwide in 30 markets reaching approximately half of the U.S. population. In 2020, Locast added over 1 million users. The service selects new cities to cover based on donations and requests. Locast also looks favorably on requests that volunteer a safe and permanent location where it can locate its equipment to receive and stream over the air stations.

Roku Removes Spectrum TV App from Its Channel Store Over Contract Dispute

Phillip Dampier December 14, 2020 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Online Video 23 Comments

The next generation of retransmission consent wars is here, as programmers and cable operators do battle with set-top box companies that increasingly seek compensation to allow content on their hardware platforms.

Once again, Roku has triggered a dispute after Charter Communications turned down a contract renewal offer permitting Charter’s Spectrum TV app in Roku’s Channel Store. The app allows customers to stream Spectrum’s cable TV lineup over Roku. Existing users tell Stop the Cap! that the app disappeared from the Channel Store, but previously installed versions still work over Roku. The problem, readers tell us, is there is no way to install or reinstall it on new Roku devices.

Charter noted the issue in a new support article explaining why the app disappeared:

Despite our best efforts to reach an agreement, Roku has not accepted Spectrum’s offer to continue our contract, which allowed customers to access the Spectrum TV app from Roku devices.

This change may prevent new downloads of the Spectrum TV app to your Roku device, but you can still access your full video library by downloading the Spectrum TV app to your Apple TV, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox, smartphone or tablet.

If you already use the Spectrum TV app on Roku, your service shouldn’t be affected.

Be sure not to uninstall the app, but you can still add devices by signing in to your current account.

If you’re new to Roku, or if you have not yet downloaded the app, you can still access Spectrum programming on another device, or use your smartphone or laptop to screen mirror Spectrum content to your Roku TV.

Find out more about using the Spectrum TV app, or get help to troubleshoot common concerns.

Roku defended its decision but also admitted it now expects compensation from certain providers in return for allowing their apps on Roku’s Channel Store.

“As America’s #1 streaming platform we are committed to providing access to amazing streaming content at an exceptional value for our users,” Roku said in a statement. “Our contract with Charter for the distribution of the Spectrum TV [app] on the Roku platform expired and we are working together to reach a positive and mutually beneficial distribution agreement. All existing customers can continue to use the Charter app while we work together on a renewal.”

Roku’s willingness to battle with programmers became apparent this year as the company continued to keep HBO Max off of its platform. Other programmers that saw their apps temporarily blocked or unsupported include AT&T TV, FOX, and Comcast’s Peacock.

 

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