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Tech Lab

Aereo’s Internet TV service is so good it’s scary

My favorite thing about network television is that I watch so little of it. It’s like getting a few extra hours of life every week. But for those who can’t get enough of the stuff, Boston just became a little more entertaining.

Today marks the local launch of Aereo. It’s a new Internet-based service that lets subscribers watch live television broadcasts in a variety of ways — on their personal computers; on Apple Inc.’s iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch; or on a standard television equipped with Apple TV or the Roku Internet TV device.

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For $8 a month, cubicle dwellers can keep up with daytime television staples like “The View” and “Judge Judy.” Or they can record the shows, and watch them later, skipping over the commercials if they wish.

I’d just as soon skip all of it. But I still enjoyed testing Aereo. Indeed, I can see why broadcasters are suing in federal court to shut the company down. The service works so well, it’s scary.

Available in New York since last year, Aereo picked Boston as its second city, but the service plans to go live in other towns, including Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Miami, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.

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After subscribing to Aereo, you just go to the company’s website and log in. Up pops a listing of all available broadcasts in the Boston television market. You get the major national networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, and CW — as well as less obvious fare, like the business news channel Bloomberg TV, or Retro, MeTV and Cozi, nostalgia channels that crank out reruns from the ’50s and ’60s. I counted 22 channels in all.

Each Aereo subscriber is assigned a tiny television antenna that’s connected to the company’s computers. This antenna captures the shows you want to see, then relays the show to the customer, via the Internet. Aereo claims the resolution is 720p HD — not state-of-the-art, but good.

Pick what you want to watch, and enjoy. Or click a red button to have Aereo make a recording of the show as it is broadcast. Your subscription includes 20 hours of recorded programs. For $12 a month, you get 60 hours and the ability to record up to two shows at a time.

Aereo works only as long as you’re within broadcast range of local channels, based on where you signed up for the service. It uses a GPS or Internet IP address information to check for channels. That means if you travel to, say, Chicago, your Aereo account will stop working until you return home.

The user interface is simple and elegant. Scroll through channel listings with the swipe of a mouse or a fingertip. Or search for particular networks, shows or genres.

On my iPhone and iPad, the pictures looked quite respectable. Aereo also let me beam shows from the iPad to my home HDTV set, with the help of an Apple TV unit. The images were darker and less sharp than usual, but decent enough. In all, Aereo is a pretty good substitute for traditional television broadcasts.

And that’s bad news for the broadcasters, who are already in trouble. Viewership is sliding; advertising revenue is stagnant. Internet streaming companies such as Netflix are competing head-on with original television series of their own. Now Aereo could ravage the broadcasters’ lucrative deals with cable companies.

Comcast Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., and other cable firms pay billions to intercept broadcast television programs and put them on their networks. It’s one reason you have to sit down before opening your cable bill. With Aereo, high-speed Internet subscribers can watch the broadcast channels for less than $10. Throw in online subscription services like Hulu and Netflix, and you’ve got most of the same programming at a fraction of the price. Who needs cable?

Worse yet, if Aereo is declared legal by the courts, cable companies could also start transmitting broadcast shows without paying for them. One company, Time Warner Cable, says it’s looking into that option. The mere threat could force broadcasters to charge cable companies less for rebroadcasting rights, which would mean a massive loss in network revenues.

Executives at CBS and Fox have said that if Aereo survives court challenges, they may stop over-the-air broadcasts altogether, and offer their shows only via cable and satellite. But US Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, has filed legislation that would revoke the license of any television broadcaster that goes off the air.

Aereo is not for me. But watching this Internet start-up plant dynamite at the foundations of a multibillion-dollar industry? Now, that’s entertainment.

ABOUT AERO

Price: $8-$12 a month

What it does: Lets subscribers watch and record over-the-air television broadcasts on Apple hand-held devices, computers, or televisions equipped with Apple TV or Roku.

What it doesn’t do: Let you watch cable channels. Works only if device is in broadcast range.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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