The US Supreme Court's ruling that the Aereo streaming video service was illegally retransmitting broadcast TV over the Internet came as a serious blow to cord cutters, or those who choose to forgo standard paid television service.
The service that Aereo ran until the court's 6-3 decision last month used a network of tiny antennas to stream broadcast television over the Internet. The way it worked was that subscribers controlled an individual mini antenna that allowed them to watch over the Internet whatever was being broadcast in their local area. Subscribers, who paid $8 to $12 a month for the service, could watch the broadcast TV channels live or record them for later viewing. The video content was stored on a DVR in the cloud rather on the user's own device.
The service was perfect for a cord cutter, especially one who couldn't get access to over-the-air TV via a digital antenna. Aereo offered the only option for watching live local news or broadcast sports.
Understandably, broadcasters, such as Fox and CBS, viewed Aereo's service as a threat to their business, which is why those companies sued Aereo for distributing their content without paying for it. (Disclosure: CBS is the parent company of CNET.) The Supreme Court decision, which ruled that Aereo is effectively the same as a cable company, was a victory for the broadcasters and halted the service.
So what's a cord cutter to do now?
In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help one reader figure that out.
Outlook bleak for those without access to broadcast TV signal
I cut the cable cord a couple of years ago. I was tired of paying more than $100 a month to watch a few TV channels. I find I can get almost everything I want to watch via an app or through services on my Roku. The one thing that was missing was live TV. So I subscribed to Aereo, which I loved. But now that it's gone, I was wondering if there is another option? All the alternatives I've seen discussed require a digital antenna. The problem is that I've tried to use a digital antenna, but I can't get a signal. So what should I do?
Frustrated Cord Cutter
Dear Frustrated Cord Cutter,
Unfortunately, since Aereo was forced to shut down, there is no good alternative for getting over-the-air broadcast TV if you are not able to get a signal using a digital antenna.
There are other devices and services that allow you to record over-the-air broadcast TV without subscribing to a cable TV service, but each of these solutions requires you get a broadcast signal on your TV using a digital antenna. CNET Reviews editor Matthew Moskovciak has put together a list of options if you can get an over-the-air broadcast TV signal. These solutions are particularly great for people who loved Aereo's digital video recording capabilities.
But for someone like you, who can't get a broadcast signal, the only options you might consider aren't ideal.
You could get a Slingbox, a device you can buy for about $150, that you install at a friend's or a family member's house who has cable TV. The Slingbox retransmits or redirects the TV signals that come into the cable household and then sends those signals over the Internet to a laptop; Internet TV device, such as an Apple TV; or a mobile device like an iPad, wherever that device may be.
The downside to the Slingbox is that you can only watch whatever channel is being viewed by the folks at the host site controlling the cable box. This means that if you wanted to watch a Sunday NFL game on CBS, but your dad is hosting your Slingbox and he would rather watch the game on Fox, you would have to watch whatever he wants to watch. Your dad could get a separate cable box that is set up for your Slingbox, but he would be adding another set-top box rental to his monthly bill.
While there is nothing illegal per se about streaming TV content from a Slingbox to another device outside the home, the service isn't really meant to be shared with non-cable subscribers as a way to dodge a paid TV subscription. It's really meant to give cable TV subscribers options for watching a service they are already paying for, wherever they may be.
From a moral standpoint, it's not really different from the cable splitters that people set up to share cable TV service with their neighbors. The same could be said of people sharing HBO Go or ESPN digital accounts. HBO and ESPN cable subscribers can access content from those channels online via specially designed mobile apps.
The apps are not intended to be shared outside the home with multiple households. However, neither HBO nor ESPN has done much to prevent this practice. In fact, you might argue they kind of encourage it since most cable streaming apps allow at least three programs to be viewed at a time. And they don't check whether the people logging in actually live in the household registered to the account.
It's up to you to decide whether you're all right with "stealing" cable service. But do recognize that this option is hardly perfect. And you may lose access down the road if Slingbox, the cable channels, or the cable company itself were ever to crack down.
The cobbled-together solution
Another possibility you might consider for viewing live sports is subscribing to individual sports programming apps or websites. For example, Major League Baseball offers a paid mobile app that allows subscribers to watch live baseball games on smartphones, tablets or laptops. But keep in mind that some games may be blacked out if they're being broadcast nationally or locally.
For live local news, some broadcasters have begun broadcasting their reports to mobile devices. But finding a local broadcaster that offers this is hit or miss, with some offering mobile signals in some markets and not in others. And you must have a device that's compatible with the mobile broadcast service in order to view the news program.
Also, remember that these apps and services are designed for mobile devices, so getting those video streams to your TV might be a bit clunky depending on the equipment you have handy.
You are not alone
As a fellow cord-cutter who lives in the frequency-challenged urban canyon of New York City, I feel your pain. None of these potential solutions sound like a good option to me.
Like you, I also can't get a broadcast TV signal, which is maddening given that I live only blocks away from the nation's biggest TV broadcasters. But my apartment, which is uptown, faces north, which means there are many obstructions between me and TV broadcasting signals from sites further downtown.
I subscribed to Aereo just to get access to local news and the limited live sports that broadcasters still offer today, such as the Super Bowl, the Olympic games, and finals of Grand Slam tennis tournaments.
Sadly, you and I are not the only paid TV cord cutters out there who can't get a broadcast TV signal. It's difficult to quantify the number of people who want free over-the-air broadcast TV, but can't get it. I have looked high and low for statistics on this, and I haven't been able to find any. The Federal Communications Commission says it hasn't kept track of how many people lost their TV signal after broadcasters switched to digital transmission.
What is known is that less than 10 percent of people in the US say they watch free over-the-air broadcast TV. Whether these people prefer cable TV service or can't afford to pay TV service is also unknown. It's difficult to say whether this number would be higher if more people could actually access the signals being transmitted.
That said, it's very likely that fewer people can access a broadcast TV signal today than a decade ago. The reason why is that in 2009, all TV broadcasters were forced by Congress to stop transmitting analog signals and instead transmit digital TV signals. While this change in technology offers many benefits, such as clearer picture and sound quality for viewers, as well as more efficient use of wireless spectrum, it also means that broadcasters have had to turn down the power on their signals, which has resulted in a shorter broadcast range.
What's more, in the old analog world, you might have gotten a fuzzy picture if you were trying to tune in to a weaker broadcast signal. But in digital transmission, the signal is either there or it's not. If the signal is too weak, the viewer gets no picture or audio.
This is happening as more people are starting to cut the cord and use the Internet to access most of what they want to view. The number of American households that no longer subscribe to a paid TV service increased 44 percent in the past four years to 7.6 million, according to a report from the Experian Marketing Services. The report also indicates that roughly 18 percent of all US households with a Netflix or Hulu Plus account are considered cord cutters and do not subscribe to a paid TV service. Again, it's difficult to know how many of these people have access to broadcast TV signals.
Was Aereo offering a public service?
What all of this says to me is that there are likely millions of people throughout the US who no longer subscribe to traditional pay TV services and who would benefit from having the option to stream broadcast TV service via Aereo. My guess is that some of them live in an urban canyon like I do or in a rural area too far from a broadcast TV transmitter, and Aereo offered them their only access to broadcast TV.
My question to regulators is this: are broadcasters, who now likely reach fewer people today than they did prior to the digital TV transition in 2009, really fulfilling their public interest obligation? Because broadcasters use public airwaves or spectrum for broadcasting, they are required under federal law to use those profitable licenses to serve the "public interest, convenience or necessity" of the American people.
In other words, are broadcasters fulfilling a public interest obligation if they broadcast a signal that no one can access?
I would argue that Aereo offered citizens, such as you and me, who have no other legal way to receive these signals, an opportunity to access this public service, which we'd otherwise be denied. Unfortunately, this line of thinking wasn't at the heart of Aereo's argument in front of the Supreme Court. I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so I don't know if this would have offered a strong legal argument. But as a consumer, I feel like the American public has been robbed.
Technological changes have made it more difficult to access free broadcast TV, and yet the Supreme Court denied Aereo the right to use cloud-based Internet technology to allow individuals to "rent" remote antennas to access those broadcast streams.
It's unclear if Aereo will ever come back, even if it has vowed to get back to business. It is currently rejiggering its legal argument to comply with the Supreme Court's findings. But Aereo was dealt another blow on Thursday when the US Copyright Office refused to process the startup's request for a license that pays for broadcast programming without having to get the permission of broadcasters themselves. Now, the best chance of Aereo surviving is if it can get the FCC to define it as a cable system. My CNET News colleague Joan Solsman explains in her recent story about the Copyright Office's decision.
The Bottom Line
My guess is that Aereo isn't likely to survive a long legal battle. After all, it's a tiny startup that now has no subscribers. Unfortunately, for you and my other fellow cord cutters, without access to broadcast TV signals via a digital antenna and without Aereo, we are simply out of luck when it comes to viewing live broadcast TV. Sorry I couldn't offer you better news. Good luck!
Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.