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Posted at 04:10 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Bamboom brings local TV to the cloud, but its legal forecast may be cloudy, too

Cord cutting — firing your cable or satellite TV service and switching to such free or cheaper sources as over-the-air and Internet broadcasts — has great appeal as a concept. But many people seem intimidated or confused about how to go about that, to judge from all the questions I keep getting on this subject.

A New York startup hopes to ease one impediment to cord cutting by putting your local TV broadcasts on the Web, with digital video recording included. But it may need to win a courtroom battle first.

Bamboom Labs essentially moves your TV antenna from beside your TV to its own centralized facility, then replaces the cord connecting that to your set with the Internet.

This lets it get around the sometimes-iffy reliability of over-the-air broadcasts. I’ve had great luck with them, but I’ve heard from many readers who have been frustrated by channels that go in and out (most recently when I talked about cord cutting at Free Press’s National Conference for Media Reform in Boston last weekend).

By siting its reception facility — made up of arrays of thumb-sized antennas, one per subscriber — in the most favorable location in town, it expects to guarantee that every local station comes in clearly. And by placing its own servers there, it can provide every subscriber his or her DVR without having to put boxes in viewers’ homes.

To watch, subscribers will only need a fast Internet connection — 5 million bits per second or more — and something with a Web browser. That would include laptops and desktops, but also smartphones and tablets, Roku boxes and some higher-end connected TVs.

The service isn’t up yet but will have an invitation-only beta test in New York soon. It hasn’t announced price plans, but I’d expect them to run around $10 a month.

So far, so good. But Bamboom faces two issues, one economic and the other legal.

First, it only offers over-the-air broadcasts — so there’s no HBO and also no ESPN, regional sports networks, Food Network, Discovery or any of the other non-broadcast channels.

The service could accommodate them — it already integrates Netflix viewing, plus the option to talk about shows on Twitter and Facebook — and seems interested in doing so. At a press dinner Tuesday, Chief Executive Chet Kanojia said he would gladly add individual channels. But they need to be convinced to step outside their traditional business model, and many of them seem afraid to do anything that entrepreneurial.

But Bamboom could also face legal issues because it retransmits over-the-air broadcasts without the stations’ consent — something that got a different Internet-view service, Ivi, hit with lawsuits. Its entire architecture — with one tiny antenna and quota of DVR storage space per customer — is already set up in a less-efficient manner to avoid getting sued on the same grounds as Ivi, as the Los Angeles Times’ Jon Healey notes in a post on Bamboom’s prospects.

(Cable TV got started with a one-big-antenna-for-everybody approach, but cable operators pay a compulsory license for their public retransmission of those signals.)

Bamboom’s executives believe that they’re in the clear and made a good case for that Tuesday night. But I trust it has a law firm on retainer, because it will probably get sued anyway.

The underlying problem here is that copyright law isn’t set up to deal with this situation. It’s obvious to any non-lawyer that no local station is getting inconvenienced by Bamboom; if the service takes off, they should be able to raise their advertising rates to account for their larger audience.

I see the same logic behind Amazon’s Cloud Player service — which also operates in a deliberately inefficient manner to avoid copyright concerns. And yet a lot of people in the recording industry seem to feel that Amazon should be paying licensing fees because Cloud Player results in an extra copy of a song living on a Web server instead of a listener’s own hardware.

At some point, Congress will need to revise copyright law to account for the ease of duplication and transmission provided by digital technology — often with no economic or cultural harm to anybody involved. But will that happen anytime soon? The odds seem slightly worse than the chances of your local cable monopoly letting you pay for only the channels you want to watch.

By  |  04:10 PM ET, 04/14/2011

Categories:  TV, Video, Policy and politics

 
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