Portable Television

Aereo markets itself with the simple motto, “Watch Live TV Online.”

The technology is new; the concept, not so much.

The mantra for the digital age has been to give consumers what they want, anywhere and anytime they want it.

But when it comes to providing live, mobile streams of broadcast content, history has been erratic and elusive, whether it be due to legal doubts or slow, sluggish investment on the part of stations. There’s also a question of demand, and whether a standalone mobile TV service makes sense in an era of apps.

John Fletcher, analyst for SNL Kagan, notes an Internet Advertising Bureau study that 63% of video viewing on mobile devices is done in the home, meaning that live TV already is readily available on the set.

The presumption, however, is that there would be a natural audience for live TV on the go, particularly for sports, news and weather.

Portable TVs go back decades, to the 1960s, but there was always a problem with them: The reception of those hand-held TVs was always spotty, and they never took off beyond a niche product. 

The Internet changed all that. Once dial-up service started giving way to cable broadband, entrepreneurs started experimenting with the idea of providing broadcast TV to the Web.

Back in 1999, Canadian businessman William Craig launched iCrave TV, a website that offered streaming signals of Canadian and U.S. stations available in Toronto. Broadcasters sued, claiming violation of copyright law, and the service shut down the following year.

Two services tried again in 2010, ivi TV in Seattle and FilmOn in Los Angeles, but they too were shut down in the courts. Ivi had even argued that its streams were legal because it was really an online cable company, but the legal argument didn’t fly.

Aereo’s launch in 2012 was novel because its setup — individually assigned, dime-sized antennas and DVR-like functions to capture live TV signals — was designed to get around legal pitfalls, even if Denny Chin, a dissenting judge in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, characterized it as a “Rube Goldberg device.” 

Slingbox, which launched in 2005, also gives consumers the ability to watch live TV online, but its functionality is tied to a user’s cable or satellite subscription. Only recently did a broadcaster challenge its legality — Fox, in a dispute with Dish Network over its Hopper features — and even then, courts seem to be leaning toward upholding the legality of Slingbox’s “place-shifting” features.

Jason Krikorian, co-founder of Sling Media, said that what helped drive its creation was the desire by he and his brother to get access to San Francisco Giants games when they were traveling. “It was content delivered to our homes in sports packages we already subscribed to,” he says. 

He says that they enjoyed a “relatively conflict-free path as a startup.” EchoStar purchased the company in 2007, and one of the more popular mobile TV apps has been Dish’s Sling Player for iPad, according to research firm SNL Kagan.

Yet the prospects for live TV on the go are limited short of being a cable, satellite or telco subscriber. Disney has been the most aggressive among all the media conglomerates in putting its broadcast network shows online, but its WatchABC app provides live streams only after a user authenticates their MVPD subscription.

Broadcasters have obvious reason to slow-go it on simply putting their signals up online: They don’t want to undercut their retransmission consent revenue.

Instead, they have long been pursuing ways to offer mobile TV over their own spectrum, via the ATSC standard.

Among the broadcasters’ ventures is Dyle TV, launched in 2012, which provides broadcast signals in certain markets using a small wireless receiver from Audiovox or a dongle adapter that plugs into a smartphone or tablet and captures the signal.

Stations still have to invest in outfitting their transmitters with mobile capability. So Dyle, which is backed by a consortium of station groups as well as Fox and NBC, is still in somewhat of an early stage, available in about 40 markets. And not all local stations are available in every market. In Los Angeles, for instance, KABC is not among the options.

The advantage is that there is no subscription fee, other than the purchase of a device, nor does the video consumption count against a mobile data plan.

The question, says Salil Dalvi, co-general manager of Dyle TV, is whether “live TV is an important enough part of the video experience that consumers are willing to make an investment.”

“What we are going through at Dyle is really understanding that,” he says, adding that they have “a long ways to go” before they can see if demand is viable.

But the goal is to convince wireless providers, and consumer electronics manufacturers, that they should put a chip in smartphones to capture TV signals. At its launch, Dyle partnered with for its service with MetroPCS Communications to carry Samsung Electronics’ Samsung Galaxy S LightRay, which featured a receiver of the mobile broadcast signal, but the product was discontinued.

“In a chicken and egg environment, the broadcasters can lead,” Dalvi says, adding, “The thing we are competing against is the existing model, and whether the consumer believes their existing experience is good enough.”

Dyle’s prospects may be unclear, but the idea of using broadcast spectrum to transmit mobile TV is the subject of other kinds of experimentation.

According to SNL Kagan, Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility have been working on an LTE broadcast standard to handle live events and sports, an answer to the rising amount of mobile data consumption. Sinclair and other stations are working on an ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard that would enable two-way interactivity.

Last week, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler cited some of these developments in a speech to the National Assn. of Broadcasters in Las Vegas. His message was that broadcasters can remake themselves into industry disruptors, via such things as mobile TV and online offerings. But others like Yahoo are looking to offer such things as local news, he said, and “your window of opportunity won’t stay open forever.”

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