A lot has been said about Aereo‘s technology — so much, in fact, that there are hundreds of pages worth of legal documents discussing the matter as it relates to the law.
That said, we thought it would be helpful to take a closer look at how Aereo actually works when it lets customers rent out remote DVR antennas and watch what amounts to live television on any device.
Once Aereo establishes itself in any new market, the team brings in what they call an Antenna Farm, or internally, a Raz-12.
This is essentially a small box, that sits on a platform on a data center roof, and is fully insulated, air-conditioned, and lightning proof. It also has one wall that is made entirely of RF transparent material, meaning that the equipment inside is capable of communicating with signals coming from outside the box.
Inside each Raz-12, there is essentially a wall full of technology. Within 12″ x 18″ cubes lies multiple antenna boards, each of which can hold up to 160 antennas. Within one cube, between 7,000 and 10,000 customers can receive service using their own individual antenna.
Once the antenna grabs the signal, which Kanojia constantly reminded us was of the volition of the customer and not Aereo, the little thumb-sized antennas change to pick up the requested frequency. Then, the transmission is sent over a fiber connection down into the data center, where Aereo transcodes the file from an MP2 to an MP4, and handles the storage of that recording on the remote DVR service.
Each rooftop array can hold about 12 cubes, thus the name Raz-12. In total, Aereo can serve around 120,000 customers with each rooftop installation, and the company purposefully buys out surrounding real estate when one antenna farm is established to add another Raz-12 whenever the market is ready for it.
The entire set up, from the cubes to the antennas to the Raz-12 itself, are developed by Aereo engineers and designers. None of the technology is bought from another company, and the entire setup is manufactured in the United States.
Aereo is under a ridiculous amount of legal scrutiny at the moment for the service it provides. Broadcasters are hell-bent on running the company into the ground now that Aereo has figured out a way to provide a service to customers that they had access to for free.
See, the reason that Aereo can operate with such low costs is that the signals they provide are actually free over-the-air signals, meaning that an individual could access them through rabbit ears on top of a TV. But none of us are interested in rabbit ears anymore, so the Aereo team built a remote set of rabbit ears that connects to the internet.
Obviously, this upsets the broadcasters, who feel that their copyrights are being infringed when Aereo users tune into their channels.
The decision is going before the Supreme Court next week, where a final decision will be made regarding whether or not an Aereo stream is a public or private transmission.
It’s all incredibly nuanced and up for interpretation, but here’s the general idea. A public performance is similar to a play or a poetry reading. It’s a single performance that is intended for multiple people to see. To copy it or retransmit it would be an infringement on those copyrights.
However, each time you sing a Britney Spears song in the shower (whether your roommates are home or not) that does not constitute a public performance. You do not owe her royalties. The performance is your own individual copy that was made for your own enjoyment in the privacy of your home.
This applies to Aereo’s technology because the company built its entire system by the letter of the law. Aereo, hypothetically, could have built one giant antenna to send the same stream of television out to multiple users at once, but that’s not how it works.
Instead, Aereo users have complete control over the antennas they rent out, and stream their own individually recorded copy of this or that show each time they use the service. Because the user has control over the antenna, and the stream itself is an individual transmission, Aereo’s technology is far closer to a cloud DVR service than anything else.
Leading into next week’s hearing, we’ll be publishing some other clarifying pieces to make sure everyone has a handle on the facts before the big day. Expect a full interview with Chet Kanojia to be published in the next couple of days.
Additional reporting and photography by Darrell Etherington