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Future of TV hinges on high court ruling on antenna technology

| Monday, April 21, 2014, 5:36 p.m.
In this Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, photo, Chet Kanojia, founder and CEO of Aereo, Inc., shows a tablet displaying his company's technology, in New York. Aereo is one of several startups created to deliver traditional media over the Internet without licensing agreements. Past efforts have typically been rejected by courts as copyright violations. In Aereo’s case, the judge accepted the company’s legal reasoning, but with reluctance. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

An obscure Internet start-up is roiling the television industry with old-school technology: the antenna.

Aereo uses thousands of tiny antennas to capture broadcast television programs, then converts the shows into online video streams for subscribers in 11 cities.

What Aereo doesn't do is pay licensing fees to the broadcast networks that produce the programs. And that has put Aereo at the center of a fierce debate over the reach of copyright laws, the accessibility of public airwaves and the direction of television.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a civil case filed against the two-year-old private firm by ABC, CBS, NBC and major broadcasters alleging that Aereo is no different from cable firms that are required to pay hefty fees to rebroadcast their shows.

“Quite simply, Aereo takes copyrighted material, profits from it and does so without compensating copyright holders,” said Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

But Aereo argues that it is entitled to draw freely from programs transmitted on public airwaves. If successful, the argument has the potential to blow apart the expensive channel bundles that have been forced on American households and to radically reduce the cost of watching television.

“Aereo has a shot at changing the TV business model,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge and a former antitrust official at the Justice Department.

An Aereo victory could dramatically change the way people watch their favorite programs. Sports and popular shows that are available only on broadcast TV or cable television could be accessed more conveniently and cheaply over the Internet.

D.C. residents Katrin Verclas and Bob Boorstin are anxious for a way to cut their cable subscription, but they've kept it for baseball games. They cringe at the thought of paying $130 a month for cable so Boorstin won't miss Nationals baseball games.

With Aereo, baseball streaming site MLB.TV and maybe another app, they would gladly use the Internet for their video news and entertainment.

“I never watch TV — all online all the time,” Verclas said. “I'd rather spend money on faster Internet than hundreds of channels we never watch.”

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