You Can Make Your Own Aereo At Home, But Is It Worth It?

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While cord-cutters around the country wait impatiently for the Supreme Court to make up its mind about the legality of Aereo — the subscription service that collects local over-the-air broadcast TV feeds and streams them to paying users over the Internet — we’ve been looking into what it would take to replicate something close to Aereo that couldn’t be shut down by SCOTUS.

The short answer is yes, you can rig up your computer to capture and record over-the-air broadcasts, but whether or not it’s worth the time and expense depends on your particular needs and which side the nation’s highest court comes down on.

The Basics Of Aereo

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When you pay Aereo a monthly subscription fee, the service does three key things for you:

  1. It captures freely available over-the-air broadcast channels in your market...

  2. It works as a DVR, recording those over-the-air broadcasts that you select, and...

  3. It allows you to remotely stream back that content, from the cloud, to any of your Internet-connected devices at a time of your choosing.

This service works because Aereo has a set-up in each of its markets that includes arrays of miniature HD antennas (each about the size of a dime) and servers for remote (cloud) storage of recordings. Your fee grants you on-demand access to rent time on one of those antennas, and also grants you access to a certain amount of cloud storage for the shows you’ve recorded.

Together, it all adds up into you deciding you want to watch Scandal or Survivor or whatever else is on network TV, scheduling a recording via your phone or computer, and then kicking back and watching it streaming back to you later on your tablet, beverage of choice in hand.

So How Do I Make One At Home?

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There are a bunch of different ways to tackle the technical details. If you feel like getting really deeply involved, you can even build your own full system from scratch.

But since signing up for something like Aereo is supposed to be all about convenience, let’s look at the easiest ways.

In general, you need:

  1. A desktop computer (or a laptop with stable space around it)

  2. An HD antenna and TV tuner that can plug into said computer

  3. The right software, both to record and to playback and stream.

And, of course, the time and know-how to make it all work.

The rest, though, isn’t too hard to come by, as these things go.

For starters, you probably already have a computer at home; about 80% of U.S. households do.

HD antennas and TV tuner adapters can be expensive, running up to $150 or higher, but there are also plenty of models of each on the market in the $30 to $40 range. It takes one TV tuner — either an internal card, if you’re okay opening up your machine, or an external one that plugs into a USB port — and one HD antenna to make the system go. Plug tuner into computer and antenna into computer and the hardware end is all set up.

So what about the software? Some tuners come bundled with their own software that allows you to schedule, record, and stream programming. But for anyone running a PC with Windows 7 or 8 on it Windows Media Center is reportedly pretty effective.

For detailed instructions, Lifehacker, among others, has links and suggestions for specific parts to try.

The one thing that neither the PC/Antenna setup nor the off-the-shelf options (see sidebar at right) can do that Aereo can is let you stream live TV on a wireless device when you’re outside your home network.

But Is It Worth It?

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So yes, you can basically build your own Aereo at home… you just may not really want to. It doesn’t really save you any money, depending how much the TV tuner and HD antenna cost; the break-even point vs an Aereo subscription could be anywhere from six months to two years, depending. Additionally, money isn’t the only cost; time and convenience are worth something, to the vast majority of consumers. And then there’s the fact that a single cloud-based user-friendly subscription service is easy to use, but even folks who could be perfectly capable of doing it themselves might be overwhelmed by level of tech savvy it requires.

Of course, that whole thing where Aereo will probably shut down unceremoniously if they lose their Supreme Court fight kind of influences the pros and cons argument, too.

So What’s All The Fuss About Aereo?

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On its face, Aereo at first doesn’t sound too different from established products like Slingbox or TiVo. Both of those devices can access cable TV and over-the-air signals. Both of them let you play back your programming from any device, anywhere. And both of them let you choose what to watch and what to record via remote-accessible interfaces.

But the key difference is that both the Slingbox and the TiVo capture the signals coming to the television in your home, at your home. Aereo, on the other hand, doesn’t require you to have a television in the house at all. If the only screen you own is an iPhone, and you subscribe to Aereo, you can still watch network programming — from sitcoms to live sports — on it at home. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Likewise, when you build your own system at home, even if you don’t have a TV you’ve still got a physical antenna kicking around. It’s yours, you bought it, and you use it at your own discretion. Antennas are completely legal, regardless of what you watch the signal on, and frankly the differences between hooking up a media center PC and just plugging into a “smart TV” are eroding day by day.

Of course, if you use an over-the-air antenna, neither cable companies nor broadcasting networks really make any money from you. And that’s tolerable to them, up to a point, because you’re not necessarily paying anyone at all — plus, if you’re watching live, you get to be advertised at.

But if you start paying Aereo $8 or $12 a month for that over-the-air content, instead of using your own antenna, then someone is making money. And it’s not the broadcasters, and it’s not the cable companies. And they really hate when money is being made and it’s not going to them.

Of course, “I hate these guys” is not a legal argument. But “copyright infringement” is, and that’s what the group of broadcasters going after Aereo in court have claimed.

A Question Of Performance

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You know the FBI warning you’ve been skipping over on movies since back when they were VHS? The one that says “unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work” is illegal? That’s because it is. And the broadcasters say Aereo is doing just that.

According to the broadcasters, Aereo is retransmitting their material without authorization, which is a copyright violation. The claim is that doing so constitutes “public performance,” for which a distributor does have to seek permission (and generally pay). For example, if a movie theater were to hold a live screening of a football game, they would have to work out a deal with the broadcaster in order to be permitted to do so.

“If somebody’s come out with a smarter antenna, and you don’t like that evolution is happening… well I’m sorry about that.” Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia

The opposite of public performance, of course, is “private performance.” A movie theater can’t show the big game without working out a deal and paying fees, but you can cram every inch of your home with friends and neighbors to watch it on your big-screen TV, and that’s okay.

So where the broadcasters claim that Aereo’s tech constitutes a big public performance and unauthorized retransmission of their material, Aereo disagrees. No, they say, it’s actually tens of thousands of simultaneous private performances.

The question, according to Aereo, is merely one of technology changing faster than the law, as it so often does. They have antennas for every user; they’re just not in the users’ homes. Right before the oral arguments at the Supreme Court back in April, Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia explained that all his company has done is invent a better antenna.

“If somebody’s come out with a smarter antenna, a clever, different antenna, and you don’t like that evolution is happening, that suddenly more people might use antennas, well I’m sorry about that,” he said at the time. “I just don’t find that rhetoric to have any credibility.”

Is It Illegal?

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So is Aereo a daring new technology, or an illegal run-around on copyright law?

Aereo and its supporters of course believe the former; broadcasters and Utah, the latter. In the end, regardless of what any of the rest of us think, it’s the nine justices of the Supreme Court who get to give the final answer to that question.

Right now, it’s anybody’s guess how the case will go. The oral arguments in April resulted in a lot of clever analogies and metaphors — everything from rental cars to valet parking to phonographs and Betamax — but not necessarily in a whole lot of clarity.

If you build your own recording system at home, that’s legal. If the court decides that’s what you’re renting from Aereo, then it’s probably legal too. But if they decide that Aereo is more a streaming service than it is an antenna company, then making your own streaming broadcast TV service at home will probably be the only choice consumers have left.

At least, until the next tech company comes along.

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