Streaming Live TV on Mobile Devices, Challenging the Networks

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A new web streaming service offers New Yorkers something previously unavailable: live TV on their mobile phones and tablet computers. By the time it had launched, on Wednesday, the service had already won fans and made enemies.

Until now, if you wanted to catch, say, NBC's "The Voice," live, you'd have to find your way to a television set with a cable subscription or a digital antenna.

Enter Aereo, a Long Island City-based startup that counts media executive Barry Diller as one of its major backers. Founder and CEO Chet Kanojia worked with his team for over a year to develop a system to stream network TV to mobile devices.

"The way the technology works is really where the innovation is," Kanojia explained. "What we've done is miniaturized television antennas down to a very small size."

Unlike a TV, the antenna doesn’t have to be attached to the mobile device. Instead, the tiny antennae are housed in a data center in Brooklyn. Each Aereo subscriber gets their own antenna, which captures the TV signal and beams it to their mobile phone or tablet.

Right now, Aereo is available only in New York City.

Hours after became available to the public, John McCartney gave the iPhone service a good review.

"It presents this technology that now sets us free from being tethered to our home or a bar, for watching live TV," McCarthy said.

Elizabeth Weisser, a violist with Talea Ensemble, has been testing the service for five weeks, and said watching programs on her iPad via Aereo has quickly become a part of her routine.

"I love having television on when I practice, and being a musician, I'm practicing a lot," Weisser said. "So I kind of am watching whatever is on at the time when I'm practicing, sometimes that's The Today Show in the morning."

But Aereo's future is far from assured. Max Dawson a professor in the Department of Radio, TV, and Film at Northwestern University says Aereo is vulnerable to accusations of copyright infringement.

"The company is already the subject of two lawsuits, and it seems like the major broadcast networks and their parent companies have sort of split up in two pairs in order to probably mount a two front fight against this company," Dawson said. One copyright infringement suit was filed by a group including Fox, Univision and PBS. The other was brought by Disney, NBCUniversal and Telemundo.

Broadcasters don't like Aereo's plan to charge customers $12 a month for programs they created, sharing none of the revenues. Aereo in turn, has filed a counter-suit.

Dawson predicts an out-of-court settlement. He thinks many more challenges lie ahead, like making sure subscribers have the bandwidth they need to use the service. Viewers watching programs on a 3G or 4G data plan, as opposed to a home wireless network, could get slapped with big bills.

Still, Dawson says the service has the potential to further disrupt the a system of TV distribution that is already in flux. Services like TiVo, Roku and BitTorrent have already siphoned viewers away from live television. Recently, networks have been challenging cable companies’ right to rebroadcast their programs for free.