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Bamboom takes over-the-air TV over the top

April 14, 2011 |  9:00 am

Bamboom2 Bamboom Labs wants to help people cut their cable cords by putting local TV broadcasts online with all the digital trimmings -- that is, the ability to watch live or recorded shows in high definition on any device with a browser, anywhere a broadband connection is available. It's technologically ingenious, but I can't decide whether it's a service the market has been waiting for or a lawsuit waiting to happen. Or maybe it's a solution to a problem not many people are eager to solve.

The New York-based startup is the brainchild of Chaitanya "Chet" Kanojia, former chief executive of Navic Networks, whose technology in set-top boxes enabled cable and broadcast networks to measure audience demographics and match advertisements to them in real time. His time at Navic taught him that at any given moment, about half of pay TV viewers were tuned in to local broadcast channels. That observation led him to believe that if he could get live broadcast signals to people reliably, with the ability to time-shift shows and watch them on any device, and with the social features of the Internet, they'd be more willing to abandon cable and satellite TV.

Other companies have taken on parts of this challenge. For example, Sling Media makes set-top boxes that let people tune in remotely to the TV service they have at home. And Monsoon Multimedia makes set-tops that combine remote viewing with TiVo-like digital video recording. But those devices build off of the programming that pay TV delivers to homes. Kanojia wanted to let people watch local broadcasts  through the Net without the help of pay TV.

Here's where things get complicated.

Chet The companies that own the copyrights to TV programs have the exclusive right to distribute them to the public. That means Bamboom cannot put up an antenna, tune in CBS and retransmit those shows to its customers through the Net (or any other medium) unless it obtains a license from CBS. The companies that have tried to do so -- including, most recently, Ivi TV -- have found themselves on the losing end of infringement lawsuits.

So what Bamboom is doing in each market it serves is putting up multiple antennas -- thousands of antennas smaller than your thumb, with miniaturized receiving elements packed into high-density arrays. It then lets customers rent an antenna and the equipment needed to record and store shows online, then retransmit them through the Net in formats customized for the device they're using. Those range from full-size high-definition (720P) images for computers and Internet-connected TVs to credit-card-sized videos for smartphones.

This approach, the company's lawyers argue, doesn't violate the copyright owners' exclusive rights to duplicate, distribute or publicly perform their works, because Bamboom isn't doing the recording or retransmitting -- its customers are, using equipment supplied by Bamboom but controlled by the viewers. Nor do viewers share the copies they make, stream a program to more than one device at any time, or stream more than two shows (to separate devices) simultaneously.

Bamboom leans heavily on a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld a video recording service offered by Cablevision. Instead of renting customers set-tops with DVRs in them, Cablevision installed digital recording equipment in its central offices that customers could control from home, with each customer making separate recordings. Although some copyright lawyers dispute the ruling and the networks appealed, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Another case still working its way through the courts may not be so helpful to Bamboom. Zediva recently launched a Netflix-like streaming service without going to the trouble of obtaining the rights to transmit movies online. The company argued that it didn't need licenses from the studios because it was merely enabling people to rent DVDs and Internet-connected DVD players. In other words, just as Cablevision could legally shift the location of the DVRs its customers were renting, so too could Zediva shift the location of the DVD players it provided. The studios, which didn't buy that argument, wasted little time hauling Zediva into court.

The legal questions raised by Bamboom's venture are interesting, but they're no more important than the question of whether people want what the company is offering. Despite the popularity of online video services such as YouTube, Netflix's movie-streaming service and Hulu, consumers haven't been dumping pay-TV services en masse. According to a report that SNL Kagan released last month, pay-TV services lost 335,000 customers between April and September last year, with cable operators seeing their largest quarterly losses ever, but gained subscribers again in the final three months of the year.

One of the main problems for online TV is that many popular cable programs aren't available on the Net, at least not right away. Bamboom doesn't solve that problem. As Kanojia concedes, fans of the Lifetime cable network probably won't be satisfied with his service unless they're willing to wait several months for Lifetime's movies to show up on Netflix.

For some viewers, though, the key missing piece in the online-TV package may be local broadcasts. Bamboom promises to integrate those channels with Netflix and other online video services into a complete package, and to build in social-networking features that make online viewing a better experience (although that may be an opinion shared mainly by younger TV watchers). Bamboom also offers mobility without the need to buy, install and configure a device such as a Slingbox.

But most people want to watch TV at home, on their big screen. And in markets where over-the-air reception is good, such as Los Angeles, why pay for online TV when you can tune in the broadcasts for free?

Bamboom is still beta testing its service in New York City, where skyscrapers and apartment living make for lousy over-the-air reception. That seems like a good place for the company to start. No word yet on when the company will come out of beta, how much it will charge or where it will roll out next.

Related:

Online TV service Ivi loses first round in court

A new, barred window for pay-TV movies

Monsoon and Zagg, pushing Hollywood's buttons

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

Photo: Chet Kanojia. Credit: Bamboom Labs

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