Aereo is a controversial new Internet-based television service that launches in Utah on Monday. It’s sleek, simple, elegant and it works well. I just can’t figure out the kind of person who would want to get it.
It’s a subscription service for $8 or $12 per month that allows you to view 29 of Utah’s over-the-air TV broadcasts on a desktop computer, iPhone or iPad, and it includes a cloud-based digital video recorder (DVR). Compatibility with Android phones and tablets is coming next month. You also can use it through a Roku set top box, and Aereo will make it compatible with video game consoles soon.
It’s touted as a way to “cut the cable” for those who are tired of paying upward of $100 per month for Comcast, Dish Network or DirecTV service.
Aereo first began as a pilot project in New York City more than a year ago. Since then, the service has expanded to Boston and Atlanta, with Utah becoming the fourth television market in the country to get it. By the end of September, Aereo will launch in some 20 other TV markets.
So how does it work? Aereo takes the over-the-air video broadcasts in each city, compresses the signals and then beams them over the Internet. On your desktop computer, you can view the broadcasts on a normal web browser such as Firefox or Chrome. Currently, it only works on an iPhone or iPad through their mobile web browsers. It will work with at least a 300 kilobit-per-second Internet connection or faster.
Aereo’s other feature is a DVR that allows you to record programs in the cloud on Aereo’s servers. You then can play back the show, rewind, skip forward, all of the usual functions that are available on a digital video recorder. No hardware is needed for Aereo. This might be the service’s greatest value for those who have cut the cable and don’t have a DVR like a TiVo.
Aereo has been the subject of a giant lawsuit filed by all the major broadcasters, including NBC, ABC, Fox, CBS and PBS. They allege Aereo violates copyright law by charging customers to stream their broadcast signals.
But so far, federal court judges have ruled in favor of Aereo because the company found a unique loophole. In each TV market, Aereo uses an array of tens of thousands of tiny antennas each the size of a dime that takes the broadcasts and sends them to a data compression center. This center, which is housed in Bluffdale for Utah, has a roof full of these small antennas. Each antenna is reserved for each customer, which is how Aereo makes the whole service legal.
I’ve been playing with the service for several days before the launch, and it works well, especially considering it is still in beta.
If you call up your browser and go to www.Aereo.com, you’re greeted with a simple television grid. There’s also a section of recommended shows and another area for DVR recordings. You also can connect on Facebook or Twitter to let friends know what you’re watching. Aereo’s interface is beautifully laid out and easy to navigate.
Best of all, the video is remarkably detailed and clear, even better than the video that is streamed from a Slingbox, a $180 set top box that does the same thing as Aereo. One downside with the video is there can be some noticeable digital artifacts whenever there is fast motion on screen, likely due to the data compression of the signal. And the video occasionally pauses to catch up with the buffering, but not often. Fortunately, it will automatically scale the quality of the video with your Internet connection speed. Even at the lowest quality, the video looks good. Be aware, however, that on a computer, Aereo requires the latest version of Adobe’s Flash Player, which means many older computers may not be able to run the service at all.
Here is where I struggle with recommending Aereo to everyone: I’m not sure who would best benefit from a service like this. True TV fans who can’t get enough of shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Breaking Bad,” or “The Walking Dead” will find it useless because Aereo does not and will never pick up basic or premium cable channels. Sports fans will only be able to use Aereo during big games that are broadcast by the major networks, such as “Sunday Night Football” on NBC. Local sports fans won’t want it because a vast majority of Utah and BYU games are broadcast on cable channels like The Pac 12 Network or ESPN. And if you just wanted the over-the-air broadcast channels to watch on your television set, why not just buy a $30 digital antenna, hook it up to your TV and get the same 29 over-the-air channels for free?
Finally, of those 29 channels, only about a third are worth watching. The rest include throwaways like two informercial channels, a local weather-only channel and something called the LiveWell network. Not exactly AMC or HBO.
Aereo is a wonderful technology that works and is well-designed. But it feels like the wrong solution to a different problem.
If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at email@example.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/topics/ohmytech.