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A New Brave Soul Attempts to Bring Your TV to You: Bon Chance, Bamboom

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Here we go again.  People who aren't "broadcasters" are messing around with the broadcast signal, all to make it more convenient to "watch TV."  You know what that means -- lawsuits, most likely from broadcasters.

This isn't the first time people have tried messing with the TV signal so that more people could watch it. Tech history is littered with brave souls. But each time they get smacked down. Years ago, there was icrave, which was sued out of existence. There's ivi, which is now in litigation. A mobile TV service pushed by Qualcomm died from multiple ills. Slingbox is the most visible survivor.

The culprit in the current case is one Chaitanya "Chet" Kanojia, a self-described "serial entrepreneur" who invented a way to make sure cable boxes accurately captured who was watching and matched viewers to appropriate ads.  During those years in the cable vineyards, Kanojia saw that the viewers in the 500-channel universe were mostly tuned to broadcast TV.  That's right, to the old network and local stations that cable was supposed to augment with all of those wired-only channels offering everything from stock car racing to cooking to real estate.

Enter Bamboom Labs, as Kanojia got some of the old band back together for some financing, got some smart new engineers together and came up with a new device that shrunk a TV antenna that dominated a rooftop into an itty-bitty device the size of a ring -- and not a Super Bowl ring, either.   More like a sedate wedding band.

Now comes the fun part.  How to make it work for consumers.  In this context, the engineering is nice, but not determinative of how to make a service work for consumers.  For that, you have to engineer around the lawyers.   Because venturing into television programming is fraught with obstacles ranging from telecommunications law to copyright law and frequently involving both at the same time.

Here's the setup as Kanojia envisions it.  People like their main TV channels, but don't want to be around to watch them on their TV.  Even time-shifting with DVRs is too restrictive, because one still has to be at one's TV set to watch the recording.  So he and friends married up the idea of good old retro broadcast programming with today's new wireless devices which are quite capable of displaying TV content in a nice, watchable way.

Their proposed service is set up so that for a nominal monthly fee, customers would "rent" one of the mini antennas, which would be set up on a tall building as part of a growing antenna farm.  The antennae, in turn, would be linked to servers and other hardware capable of transmitting the HD signal of a channel that the viewer selects through the "cloud" and into the device or devices of the viewer's choice, like a tablet computer or laptop.

Bamboom's service, which will roll out shortly in the New York City area, eliminates the need for expensive cable TV packages, if those customers only want to watch broadcast channels, Netflix, and a couple of other features to be added later.  The key is that the subscriber and the TV stations have to be in the same market.  This is where all the lawyering comes in.

Among other issues, the legal problems for the others who attempted similar services were caused in part because the broadcast stations were being sent willy-nilly through the Internets and because there was no direct link between the viewer and the TV signal.

That's why the service is set up so that consumers can only get the signals in their TV market, from their TV market.  Carrying a tablet computer around would be like having a portable TV for broadcast channels.  You can watch a channel, switch channels, record channels.  Out of market, you can watch shows you recorded.   It's like having your own personal TV set, controlled from your device through the Clouds/Internet to that itty-bitty antenna farm in a top-secret location.  No sharing, though.  It's one antenna per consumer, so that each broadcast is a private performance.

By keeping everything market-specific, Bamboom aims to satisfy some of the more arcane demands of telecommunications law.  Then there are the even more arcane demands of copyright law.  And that's why Bamboom is rolling out in the New York area.

In 2007, Cablevision, the Long Island cable company, introduced a remote DVR service.  It was like having a set-top DVR except that the actual recording, controlled by the customer, was done at the Cablevision facility, not on a set top box.  Of course, they were sued for violating copyright law.  (My day-job employer, Public Knowledge, filed an amicus brief supporting Cablevision.)  Amazingly enough, at the end of the day (actually a year or so later), Cablevision won, establishing the principle of remote control by a consumer of a device.

Bamboom is building off of the Cablevision case in the theory of remote control, even to the degree of setting up shop on Long Island, so that if a lawsuit is filed, it would be in the same courts that heard the Cablevision case.  That little antenna, controlled from the tablet, is just like the DVR.

In an ideal world, broadcasters would accept the Bamboom service for what it is -- a way of extending their reach to more viewers in places they couldn't reach before.  Lawsuit-happy content companies should realize they have already lost the battle through the Cablevision case, and should back off.

Kanojia isn't taking chances.  He's got the lawyers lined up, just in case.

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