Aereo fires up expansion plan with 19 cities in one fell swoop

Lawsuits aren't slowing down the online over-the-air broadcast service, planning to launch in as many as 19 new metro areas by August.

Aereo's CEO on a stage
Aereo CEO and founder Chet Kanojia discusses the over-the-air streaming service at CE Week in New York. Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Aereo's U.S. expansion this year will be a deluge, not a trickle. The startup plans to launch in as many as 19 new cities by the end of August, CEO and founder Chet Kanojia said Wednesday during a fireside-style chat at CE Week conference in New York.

The company, which has provoked media conglomerates' ire by beaming live, local over-the-air television broadcasts over the Internet, has been working in a broad swath of areas simultaneously since it announced in January its plans to expand to 22 total cities across the U.S. over the course of this year .

After first operating solely in New York, the company expanded its service to Boston in May and Atlanta this month.

Rolling out the service "is like elastic that catches up with you," Kanojia said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Moving to other areas could open the door to other legal battles, but the company has filed for declaratory judgment in New York, which could declare the ruling in that district as applicable for the whole country. That decision is still pending.

Spreading out geographically is one side of the coin for Aereo's growth. The other is simplifying the service and how consumers can access it, which is something Kanojia said he struggles with. Getting Aereo onto televisions is hard, he said in the interview, and the company is approaching the problem first through companion devices like Roku. Kanojia said the company is working on getting the service onto more devices like consoles as well as smart TVs.

Aereo, which is backed by IAC Chairman Barry Diller, uses antenna/DVR technology to let consumers can watch live, local over-the-air television broadcasts on some Internet-connected devices, including the iPad and iPhone. That capability has provoked lawsuits from TV broadcast giants including ABC, CBS (the parent of CNET), Fox, NBC Universal, and Telemundo, which alleged last year that the service violates their copyrights and that Aereo must pay them retransmission fees.

Thus far, Aereo has won big battles. In April, an appeals court denied a preliminary injunction motion from television networks that would have prevented Aereo from transmitting recorded broadcast television programs to its subscribers. The court found that the networks, which have charged that Aereo's service is illegal, "have not demonstrated that they are likely to prevail on the merits of this claim in their copyright infringement action."

In May, Aereo filed a complaint against CBS to prevent it from filing another lawsuit against it.

Kanojia sees it as a fight that is bigger than Aereo itself. "What really is at stake...is your ability to control your own media," he said during the public discussion. Big media companies are telling consumer they must "pay a tax every time" they store media away from their homes, he said. "That's how big this issue is."

He is also prepared for Aereo to be unprofitable as it fights that battle and creates a product that attracts consumers.

Last month, Aereo fine-tuned the pricing plans for its service, doing away with long-term commitments and with annual and daily offerings. Now, consumers can start with a base membership plan of $8 per month for use of Aereo's cloud-based antenna/DVR technology and 20 hours of DVR storage. For $12 a month, they can upgrade to 60 hours of DVR storage. The New York-based company also further sweetened things by offering the first month of service at no charge.

"I'm not suggesting I don't care about making money," he said, adding that initially he cares about the product and popular response more.

He also acknowledges the risks. "The graveyard is full of crusaders," he said on the sidelines.

CNET's Shara Tibken contributed to this report

 

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