Aereo: Pay for free TV

TV streaming startup vs. the networks
TV streaming startup vs. the networks

Aereo's streaming television service is both a glimpse at the future of television -- and also a redundant offering that is borderline-superfluous.

First, new to Aereo? Here's how it works: Broadcasters control the retransmission of their shows online, but Aereo found a way around that. It set up a farm of old-fashioned TV antennas, similar the one you used to have on your roof, except way smaller. Thousands of them. It pulls in broadcast signals and assigns each antenna to one of its customers. And then, using a server farm as the middleman, it streams TV from those antennas to customers via their Internet connections.

Anyone within the New York metropolitan boundaries can access Aereo for free streaming of live broadcast television for an hour a day, as long as there are available antennas. New York residents who choose to pay Aereo a premium fee, ranging from a $1 a day to $80 a year, get guaranteed access to the service. Premium users also can digitally record shows streamed by Aereo using a cloud-based DVR.

Technically, you need to be physically located in your home market -- which is only New York for now -- to access the service. Aereo tracks this through a combination of IP address, Wi-Fi triangulation, and a user's credit card billing address. But if you're away from home, that restriction can be easily bypassed if you click a button that says, "But I AM in my Home Market." Aereo is adamant that this is not how its service is intended to be used, and incorrectly claiming that you're in your home market could result in the termination of your account.

Broadcast networks have taken exception to Aereo's business model. The startup is charging users for access to these streams without paying the networks a dime. Some broadcasters, including Fox and CBS, are threatening to move their networks to cable.

Related story: Aereo could bring down broadcast TV

Politics aside, the experience of watching TV streamed by Aereo is mostly great. I frequently buy daily subscriptions to watch big TV events, including this year's Super Bowl.

The service is accessible on a computer Web browser, Apple iOS devices (via Safari), and Roku set-top boxes. Though the service isn't yet available on Android, Aereo still provides a nice degree of viewing flexibility. Regardless of how you watch, Aereo's amenities are consistent across all devices.

The process of getting set up to watch Aereo could be a bit easier, but once you get to the viewing part, it's dead simple. Picking a show from the interactive on-screen guide, scheduling something to record, and navigating through a show like it were a Tivo (TIVO) are all easy and intuitive.

Aereo features a pair of guides: One that recommends programs that are currently on air and another to suggest upcoming shows. Aereo also provides the ability to search and the option to connect to Facebook (FB) so that you can share what you're watching with friends. With a Roku, you can even use Aereo with a traditional remote control.

The cloud DVR service gives you all the benefits of a traditional DVR, complete with options to sort, filter, and manage upcoming and existing recordings. Aereo lets you easily view and manage that content from anywhere.

Picture quality is comparable to what you'd get on Hulu and Netflix (NFLX), though the 15- to 30-second wait time while the stream builds up its buffer takes some getting used to. There's no instant gratification of channel surfing, and occasionally, when my connection wasn't terribly speedy, the stream would fail to load -- but that was rare.

But the actual technology behind Aereo is only half the battle here. The rub with Aereo is that you're basically paying to avoid having to set up an antenna. Everything on Aereo, with the exception of Bloomberg TV, is free, over-the-air broadcast television. Unless you live somewhere where it's really difficult to get a clear, over-the-air signal, you're largely paying for convenience.

There's value in having a cloud DVR, but the vast majority of anything you'd watch on Aereo is generally available on Hulu Plus the day after it airs for the same monthly fee. And Hulu Plus also comes with cable content, original content and the majority of movies from the Criterion Collection.

The main use case for Aereo is most likely travel. If you're someone who is into sports, or if you want to stay on top of the local news, but you're frequently away from home, Aereo is a wonderful way to gain access to those broadcasts without having to purchase and set up a Slingbox. And while there's no monthly fee for a Slingbox, Aereo could ultimately be cheaper if you just pay a dollar every time there's something you want to watch. Again, this requires violating the terms of service at your own risk, but you're also using Aereo to begin with.

The TV landscape is rapidly shifting, and the way we watch shows could be different in a few years. But today, it's hard to see Aereo as anything other than what it is: a curious experiment that's currently available in a single city whose business model may or may not be legal (though Aereo has won two big court battles so far).

From a technological standpoint, Aereo is the best of its breed and absolutely how live TV should look and feel on the Internet. But it needs to do more than just offer what we can already get for free.

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