Brooklyn-based Aereo lets subscribers watch and record over-the-air TV anywhere they go on computers, iPhones(s aapl) or iPads. The service is available for now in New York City but will soon be unveiled in dozens more cities across the country for $1 a day or $8 a month.
Media attention to the service has focused primarily on the legal dispute between Aereo and TV broadcasters who have tried, and so far failed, to shut it down. The legal controversy is real but also overshadows the implications of the service for TV viewing and the technological wizardry that makes Aereo work. (Aereo founder and CEO Chet Kanojia will be speaking at our paidContent Live event in April.)
To get a better idea of just how Aereo is serving up TV, we went to the company’s plant in Brooklyn to get some up-close photos. Here’s our tour:
From the Empire State Building to your iPhone
Aereo transmits from the top floor of a nondescript government building on Vanderbilt Avenue on the edge of downtown Brooklyn. You can see it on the right:
Aereo chose this location for a reason. The floor on which it operates has a direct line of sight to the city’s biggest transmission tower. Here’s a picture of the tower and the view from Aereo’s window:
These direct sight lines make it easy for Aereo to pick up the powerful signals emitted from over-the-air broadcast services like ABC(s dis), NBC, CBS, Fox and local community stations. Aereo’s technology then transcodes and relays those signals to its customers who can watch TV, change channels and record shows with their phones or iPads:
Tiny antennas for everyone in the city
Aereo works by letting every subscriber rent a pair of tiny antennas. Customers get two antennas so that they can watch live TV while also recording a show or, alternately, to watch live TV on two different devices at the same time. While Aereo created the personal antenna system as a way to comply with copyright rules (you can read about the legal issues here), the antennas themselves are remarkable in that they give Aereo the capacity to serve 1 million New York City customers from the single floor in Brooklyn and an adjoining rooftop.
Here’s a close up look of the dime-sized antennas in action:
Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia explained that the device is a simple copper antenna but that, rather than picking up the entire TV spectrum like a typical cable antenna, it picks up only the 6 megahertz block of spectrum that a viewer wants to see at a given time. He describes it as a “switched antenna” that’s beautiful in its simplicity. The ingenuity, Kanojia said, is that Aereo’s 1.5 inch antenna changes its electrical and magnetic characteristics in order to replicate the tasks of a standard 35 inch UFH or three foot VHF antenna.
The size of the antenna allows Aereo to cram many of them into a small space which is one reason Aereo is able to relay TV to so many people at the same time. Another reason is that the antennas are “multitenant” which means that, when one Aereo subscriber is not using an antenna at a given time, it is available to all other subscribers.
Cheap storage and high-performance fiber
Aereo relies on the antenna system to offer a cheap TV services that subscribers can easily add or drop at any time. But the antenna is only part of the equation. To make the service economically viable, Aereo is also capitalizing on major advances in transcoding technology and cloud storage. It is these advances that now make it affordable for Aereo to translate the over-the-air TV signals into iPhone video streams and to let people store hours of television on remote servers.
According to Kanojia, commercial transcoding costs per stream would have been $8,000 per customer two years ago but now the company can do it for under $20 (these figures relate to capital expenditures, not monthly costs). He also notes that a terabyte of storage, which once cost over $1 million, can now be had for under $100. The new efficiency, he said, is not just in raw storage capacity but better spindle speeds on hard drives that improve transmission times.
Here is a look at Kanojia standing in front of Aereo’s proprietary transcoding devices and a close-up of the servers which act as a private cloud service and on which Aereo customers store thousands of hours of TV to watch later:
To connect the antenna system with the transcoding and recording devices, Aereo relies on multiple 10 gigabit fiber links that look like this:
Aereo also relies on leased fiber networks in different spots around New York City to deliver TV content to its subscribers. This system means it doesn’t have to rely on content delivery networks or other middlemen.
“What’s the point of long-hauling something when you’re already 80 percent there?. There’s no CDN’s. It’s a local to local product,” said Kanojia.
Next: the man who would break the cable industry
Aereo wants to overturn the current TV business model in which viewers shell a hundred dollars for a bundle of channels, many of which they don’t want to watch. Aereo’s challenge comes by way of its technology but also in the form of Kanojia himself, who is picking a fight that many have lost before (iCravetv, ivi, etc) — and is so far holding his own. You can now read our follow-up account of Kanojia’s vision for the future of television.