Starry-eyed surprise: The rise of wireless Internet startups?
By Leslie Ellis and Sara Dirkse
In case you’ve managed to forget the tragic tale of Aereo, brace for some flashbacks. Aereo founder Chet Kanojia announced last week that he is introducing a new Internet service – called “Starry” – that uses millimeter wave technology to wirelessly deliver Internet speeds up to 1GB. Kanojia aims to disrupt the business of broadband with this latest venture, a new take on fixed wireless technology.
“It costs the cable guys around $2,500 per home to deal with the construction costs of laying down cable,” said Kanojia on a Jan. 27 phone call with TechCrunch, setting the scene for his next big reveal. “And beyond cost, there are regulatory hurdles that slow down the process.”
We can’t really speak for the legal or regulatory challenges Starry might face (thank the heavens and – heh-heh! – stars), but it’s probably safe to assume that ISPs are already all over it. However, on the latest episode of Re/code Decode with Peter Kafka, Kanojia shared a more optimistic view. “Comcast isn’t going out of business,” he said when asked if he expected another legal challenge. “It is better for them to have a few small competitors in the market so that the government is satisfied.”
Potential legal battles aside, it appears Starry might face some challenges on the technical front too. Re/code’s Ina Fried put together a great analysis of some of the technical stumbling blocks that Starry might face, based on issues that plagued similar ventures in the past.
Here’s the basics: Starry uses technology called “millimeter wave band active phased array technology.” This being Translation Please, indulge us in doing what we endeavor to do.
Starry Beam rooftop module (Image credit: Engadget)
In a nutshell, Starry puts a bunch of little nodes called “Starry Beams” on rooftops in densely populated areas (this might ring a bell with anyone who used Aereo), and gives its customers little receivers called “Starry Points” to stick outside of a window.
Starry Point window receiver (Image credit: Engadget)
The Starry Beam shoots out millimeter waves in a bunch of different directions (this is what they mean by “active phased array”), and these waves bounce off of buildings and other obstacles until they reach your Starry Point. Aereo claims that they can transmit a reliable signal without line-of-sight from the node to the receiver, unlike previous attempts at fixed wireless Internet.
Aereo also offers the optional Starry Station, a $349 Android-powered router with a touchscreen that monitors its own connections, handles parental controls, and a bunch of other tricks.
The (optional) Starry Station (Image credit: Engadget)
According to Kanojia, this approach will save Starry, and its customers, a lot of time and money. “We can deliver faster broadband with no regulatory wait time and it will cost us only $25 per home,” he said on the TechCrunch call.
No word yet on pricing, other than that Starry will be a tiered service based on speed (topping out at 1 GB up and down).
Chet isn’t alone in the landscape of wireless startups targeting larger ISPs. Two San Francisco-based companies, Artemis Networks and Webpass, are working together on a similar service. This one is particularly interesting because Artemis claims to have invented a way to use interference as a channel for transmitting and receiving data – so the more interference, the better the connection. (It all sounds so … Hedy Lamarr!)
We can’t wait to see this one in action – and according to Artemis founder Steve Perlman (yes, that Steve Perlman — former head of WebTV, Rearden Steel and Moxi), we might see it in Boston later this year (assuming the FCC gives the nod).
Plus, Chet’s just an interesting guy to keep an eye on. He started out in cable, founding Navic Networks in the early 2000s. Remember? Microsoft bought Navic in 2008 for a reported $250 million; Chet’s been throwing wrenches at the industry that launched him ever since. Which makes us wonder: Who pissed Chet Kanojia off so bad?
Aereo, Say It Ain’t So
Back when I lived at the farm, with terrible antenna reception and no cable service, Aereo solved my problem of not having a reliable way to watch TV. That is, until service was cut off pending the Supreme Court’s final ruling on whether Aereo violated copyright law by retransmitting broadcast signals captured on dime-sized antennas.
We’ve had an ear to the ground all year, waiting to find out if Aereo would upend the media industry or go dark forever. That decision finally arrived on Wednesday, June 25, with the Justices ruling 6 to 3 against Aereo.
Aereo’s cloud DVR service worked using massive rooftop arrays of dime-sized antennas, each assigned to an individual subscriber. Because the antennas weren’t shared, Aereo argued that its retransmission of broadcast signals did not constitute a “public performance” and as such should not be subject to licensing fees.
Broadcasters, not surprisingly, had a different opinion.
One of the attorneys representing Aereo, David Frederick, is often quoted comparing Aereo’s technology to that of 1980s-era video recorders. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that recording programs at home for later viewing did not violate copyright laws, then Aereo’s remote DVR service shouldn’t raise any red flags. Right?
Actually, Aereo’s service was a far cry from the VCR experience of the 80s – both in terms of the monthly fee and the ease of enforcement. While broadcasters couldn’t do much to stop a guy with a set of rabbit ears and a VCR from recording episodes of Dallas back in the 80s, it’s a very different story when you’ve got a company repackaging free over-the-air content for a profit. And it’s much easier to make an example of that company.
So what’s next for Aereo, now that the Supreme Court ruled that they have to pay retransmission fees to broadcasters? Aereo founder Chet Kanojia (a long time cable industry guy, who founded interactive TV advertising company Navic Networks, selling it to Microsoft in June of 2008) previously said that Aereo had “no Plan B” if the court battle didn’t go in their favor.
However, in an email to Aereo subscribers on Wednesday, Mr. Kanojia changed the message by saying “our work is not done” and vowed to “continue to create innovative technologies that have a meaningful and positive impact on our world.”
The ruling also calls into question anyone delivering cloud-based video services, especially live and linear content. For now, it appears, so long as partakers keep paying broadcasters (for the content they pay for and distribute), it’s still a clear path.
So will Aereo be reinvented as something new, or is it destined to gather dust on our shelf of televestigials? Only time will tell… and we’ll be watching.
Happily, for lots of reasons, I’m off the farm now and back “on the cord.” If nothing else, I’m glad we got to be part of what was a very good television experience … until it wasn’t. Thanks, Aereo. (Can we have our dime-sized antenna, just for nostalgic posterity?)
Spring Streaming Update 2014
Spring snowflakes are flying in Colorado, as are the news headlines surrounding some of our favorite devices and services. So today, we bring you a sampling of the latest news items to sprout in the world of OTT technology.
Roku’s Streaming Stick is refreshed and ready to compete with Chromecast
Roku announced an update to its Streaming Stick on March 4th (to be released in April; yes we’ve pre-ordered) with a few changes that position it nicely as a backatchya to Google’s Chromecast. Starting with the happy fact that the Roku stick works on all HDTVs. Previously, it required HDTVs plumbed with an MHL (Multi High-Definition Link) HDMI port, so as to power the device. The price is also peppy, down from $100 to $50. Still not as low as Chromecast’s $35 price tag, but hey. Roku owns the category.
In terms of content and user experience, Roku’s Streaming Stick comes with the standard Roku remote and 1200+ channels, while Chromecast is controlled entirely from your mobile device (no physical remote) and has around 20 compatible apps. The two devices have DIAL functionality in common; Roku’s YouTube and Netflix apps allow you to browse and control the content from your mobile device, while all Chromecast-compatible apps are controlled solely from your mobile device.
We expect Roku to release a new version of its mobile app in April, integrating its Universal Search feature – meaning you’ll be able to search across services using your mobile device, then tune to your content without drilling down into the individual service to find it.
We’ll keep you posted on Roku Stick v. Chromecast as soon as the thing arrives.
Apple TV Moves Up
At the annual Apple Shareholders’ Meeting at the end of February, CEO Tim Cook revealed that Apple TV device sales grew by about 80% in 2013, reaching about 10 million units for the year. (What!) Total worldwide sales of Apple TV since 2007 sit at about 28 million units (compared with about 8 million Roku devices sold in the U.S. since 2008. Ouch.).
We’ve heard a lot of buzz about new Apple TV hardware for over a year now, but nothing’s been confirmed, yet again. What has changed is the amount of content available on Apple TV. Once the most limited in terms of content, Apple TV’s app lineup improved dramatically in 2013 with the addition of Hulu Plus, HBO Go, and a whole host of other payTV apps from A&E, Lifetime, History, Disney, Smithsonian Channel, and more. While Apple TV doesn’t have nearly as much content as Roku, it’s no longer just a Netflix-and-iTunes player.
Aereo Goes Dark in Denver
After ongoing court battles with broadcasters, on February 19th Aereo got slapped with a six-state injunction (covering Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Montana.) U.S. District Court Judge Dale Kimball granted Aereo a temporary reprieve on the 25th, allowing it to continue normal operations for 14 days.
Alas. Earlier today, March 7, Federal Court Judges Briscoe, Hartz, and Bacharach overturned the temporary 14 day stay. We kept Aereo streaming all day in the lab, wondering if it would suddenly go dark. It’s 7 p.m. as I post this, and I’ve still got the local news streaming on my computer. According to an email that hit my inbox about an hour ago, from Aereo founder Chet Kanojia, service in Denver and Salt Lake City will cease tomorrow at 10:00 AM MST (and we’ll be getting a full refund for the month).
It’s not over yet. Aereo and the broadcasters are expected to face off before the Supreme Court on April 22, so time will tell how all of this shakes out in the end. As Aereo has become a well-used service at the “farm lab,” where antenna reception is ridiculously bad, I’m hoping this injunction will be temporary.
Much Ado about Aereo
On October 28th, Aereo came to Denver. It rolled out to the general public on November 4th, but we got early access because we preregistered months ago (and then routinely stalked Aereo’s website hoping for a rollout date.)
Aereo is over-the-air (OTA) television and local channels provided over the Internet – each subscriber has a remote DVR, plus a dedicated antenna, somewhere in a data center in Denver.
Maybe you’ve heard of Aereo in the context of the multiple lawsuits brought by broadcasters – Fox’s CEO publicly threatened to make all its content payTV only, and major networks such as ABC, CBS, and Fox filed lawsuits in multiple states. One or both seem destined to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
All this legal trouble stems from those antennas on the rooftop – Aereo claims that because each subscriber has a dedicated antenna, it is no different from getting those free-to-air channels using an antenna at home. Not surprisingly, broadcasters disagree — vehemently — and want Aereo to pay retransmission fees just like everyone else who carries their signals. So far, the rulings have been in Aereo’s favor, but another crop of lawsuits popped up in Utah on October 25th.
PayTV operators, which do pay handsome retransmission fees for those local channels, are of course watching these proceedings with great interest. A recent article in Businessweek says that DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are weighing similar technology options in the event Aereo prevails, and may have even considered buying the company.
We can’t help but wonder what would happen to the payTV ecosystem, were Netflix to buy Aereo. They both need each other — Netflix for live and linear; Aereo for a big catalog of on-demand fare. But we’ll set that aside for now.
So how does it work?
For $8/month, you get a single tuner and 20 hours of recording time. For $12, you can add a second tuner and increase your recording time to 60 hours. I doubt a second tuner or extra DVR space will get much use with 30 channels in our labs, but is probably a very sound investment for anyone who watches a lot of sports.
Aereo released a dedicated app for Android devices on October 22, and also works with iOS devices and web browsers. However, you won’t find it in the iTunes app store – you need to access Aereo’s website through Safari on your phone or tablet. Fortunately, it’s easy enough to drop a shortcut on your home screen so the end result is that you have an Aereo icon that takes you right to the website – virtually the same as using an app, and Aereo doesn’t have to give a cut to iTunes. Pretty clever, actually.
Aereo isn’t an official iOS app, but it’s easy enough to add an icon to your home screen.
Aereo works on Apple TV via AirPlay, and also has a channel on Roku. The Roku channel is not in the official channel store; you can only add it as a private channel. To do so, you go to the settings area of Aereo’s website and choose “connect to Roku,” then follow the link to Roku’s website to install the channel. Once the channel shows up on your Roku (I had to force a software update in order to see it), you just need to open it and type the confirmation code it displays into Aereo’s settings.
Aereo also has a “Two-screen Mode” for Roku that allows you to control Aereo from your iOS device:
Aereo on Roku, Two-Screen Mode. from Leslie Ellis on Vimeo.
In general, I like Aereo because it gives me a reliable way to watch local channels in an area where I can barely get an antenna signal. I’ve used a number of antenna-DVR combos, but more often than not my recordings were empty because the signal cut out.
But my Aereo antenna, about the size of a dime, is located on an undisclosed rooftop somewhere in Denver and gets an excellent signal – for the first time, I can get all the major networks, and I’ve yet to see a DVR recording that’s just a black screen.
Aereo suffers from my slow bandwidth connection, however (5 Mbps on a good day), so the video often pauses to reload even when on the lowest quality setting.
The playback on my Roku and my iPad appeared to be about equal on the Farm Lab’s DSL connection, and the two-screen mode on Roku worked equally well (this looks to be a Chromecast-type implementation where the Roku is retrieving the video from a URL rather than streaming it directly from the iPad). This also means that you can navigate to a different page or multitask on your device without interrupting the video.
Scheduling a recording from the iPad using Roku’s Two-Screen Mode.
Recording Options on iPad
However, using AirPlay with my Apple TV to watch Aereo was a different story. The video, which was streaming from my iPad to the Apple TV, paused to buffer so frequently that it wasn’t worth watching. AirPlay also relies on the app being up and the iPad screen active in order to work so there’s no multitasking, or even letting the iPad screen go dark as you watch TV.
Other than Aereo, the only way I can watch local news and major networks is using the Slingbox we have hooked up to our Comcast subscription in our Denver OTT lab. While the Slingbox does let me access a lot more content, I mostly find myself using it to watch live local news when there’s something going on.
This scenario is considerably better on Aereo, partly because the streaming quality is slightly more reliable than the SlingPlayer app, and I can watch it on my Roku. What’s more, the Aereo lineup in Denver includes 24/7 News (a subchannel of Denver’s channel 7), which plays the latest local newscast 24/7 – I really wish I had this for the floods back in September, and I’ll surely be tuning in the next time a blizzard rolls into Colorado.
But as much as I like having Aereo at the Farm Lab, there is one little thing I wish they’d change: As someone who uses TV as background noise more often than not, I like live TV because it’s linear – I don’t have to select another piece of content in order to keep watching. So naturally, I expected Aereo would work this way.
Instead, whenever a show ends, it pops up a message telling you to select something else. So if I get sucked into the first 3 minutes of whatever’s on next, I have to clear that message, navigate back through the guide, and find the current segment. Silly.
There are also a few glitches to be ironed out in the Guide by Time – future airtimes don’t list shows in the correct time slot – i.e. looking at the 5 pm slot actually gives you shows airing at 7, and because the guide is organized by show you can’t just tune in to a channel – you’re only given the option to schedule a future recording. It would be nice to have a “tune to this channel now” option in the guide.
The verdict: I’d really like to see Aereo make its linear experience a bit more linear, so that I can keep watching without constantly picking up the remote. But while it’s not perfect, Aereo is something that I can see myself using because my antenna reception is so awful. After buying expensive HD antennas and running extra-long coax all over the house, paying $8 a month for a reliable signal (and DVR) seems like a bargain, even if I should technically be able to get those channels for free.