Thoughts on Locast: Broadcast Meets Broadband

Locast launched in 2018 as a way for TV viewers to receive OTA TV without an antenna. For those of you familiar with the TiVo Stream (not to be confused with the more recent and most unfortunately christened TiVo Stream 4k), the Locast service essentially does what the Stream does.: it makes the OTA broadcast friendly to network (including internet) streaming. Basically, the Locast service receives the OTA station (using an antenna) and converts it into a broadband stream. Viewers can then use apps on their televisions, set-top boxes, streaming sticks, or other devices to view live programming.

I Want My TV!

As one might imagine, here at Koherence we have a better than usual OTA setup. There are multiple antennas, that provide optimal orientation towards the broadcast towers as well as providing redundancy. The multiple antenna inputs are also used to provide diversity. The combination of these usually results in error-free broadcast reception.  The entire Entangle setups are also on UPSs that can withstand an hour or so of power outages.

But even with those measures, there are times when we receive an imperfect or no signal.  An increasingly common problem is power outages. One wouldn’t think that would be an issue in the heart of Silicon Valley, but go figure. Twice this year there have been outages that ran down the UPSs.

Also problematic at certain times of the year is a weather condition known as atmospheric ducting. Basically, broadcasts farther away interfere with (and  in some cases overwhelm) the local broadcast. This is particularly true where the local broadcast is low-power, in which case the local broadcast is overwhelmed and the remote broadcast is received in its place. But it can also happen with higher power broadcasts where a transient impairment (such as those caused by planes or trees swaying in the wind) pushes reception over the threshold of the tuner’s sensitivity and error correction, resulting in errors in the broadcast stream. Naturally these events happen at the worst possible time, such as when Emeril Lagasse says, “And now let me tell you the secret to the perfect chocolate mouse – all you have to do is”…<LOSS OF SIGNAL>.

While we appreciate that receiving the OTA broadcast provides the best possible picture quality – Locast’s transcoding inevitably yields some amount of resolution and/or quality loss – one cannot argue with being able to watch broadcast shows without intermittent macroblock – or just being able to watch it in the case of an extended power outage!

What’s The Big Deal?

As is so often the case, the issue swirling around Locast is related to money. But wait, you say, OTA TV is free isn’t it? Well yes and no. If you think about it, all those people working at your TV station probably aren’t working for free. They need equipment to do their jobs, not to mention all the equipment needed to broadcast a signal. If your station has a newsroom then that crew needs to be funded too. So where does all that money come from? In the Good Old Days advertising provided a chunk of revenue.  This is one reason why commercial skip features are so controversial. They quite literally starve the hand that feeds them. Long form advertising (informercials) are another way to raise money, as are having shows sponsored. All of these are still applicable today.

But over the years other forms of revenue have popped up. Retransmission fees are now a non-trivial source. Retransmission fees are fees that a broadcaster charges cable, satellite, and other providers to retransmit their signal. If you subscribe to cable you’ve probably seen this fee passed on to you on your bill. To give you an idea of how important retransmission fees have become, in 2010 they were for the most part non-existent. By 2018 they were close to $10 billion range and was overtaking advertising revenue.

As you might guess, this is where Locast is problematic. It doesn’t pay retransmission fees to the broadcasters whose signal it is retransmitting. Locast says it is operating under the Copyright Act of 1976, which lets a nonprofit entity retransmit a broacaster’s signal in order to extend the signal into regions where it is not received well (but of course still within the region where the signal is intended to be received.) This allowance was intended to allow repeaters to be set up. Consider for example a valley where the signal from a tower is obstructed. A strategically placed repeater could allow viewers in the valley to receive the broadcast. Rather than extending the range of the broadcast, Locast overlaps with the original broadcast area. Through geofencing Locast does attempt to limit who can access channels based on where they are located. So if you’re in San Francisco you can’t watch Locast’s Phoenix channels (…unless of course you use a VPN making it look like you’re in Phoenix…)

There are other aspects to the Locast controversy and we’ll touch on just one more here: content rights. Basically whoever produces a show has the right to monetize it. Broadcasters either have to create that content themselves (think news broadcasts, or series produced by a parent or affiliated company), or pay a license to whoever owns the content. In retransmitting a broadcaster’s signal, Locast is effectively taking content which a broadcaster paid for (either by paying for its production or via licensing fees) and providing that content free to viewers. The Copyright Act of 1976 does allow a nonprofit translator to rebroadcast signals without a copyright license from the broadcaster.  It should be noted however that if a broadcaster licenses content, it may or may not have the right to stream that content over the internet- if the broadcaster doesn’t provide a live stream of its own it has no reason to negotiate that right.

So Is Locast A Good Thing?

There’s no question that the concept behind Locast – making OTA signals available via broadband – is a good thing. Given the choice, who wouldn’t want to load an app onto their smart TV or phone instead of trying to install an antenna and locating that one perfect spot and orientation that lets you get most of your local broadcasts?

But at the same time its hard to deny the harm Locast does to broadcasters. Whether we like it or not, “free TV” has only been free in the sense that we don’t send money to our local TV stations. We do allow them to make money by watching ads or sponsored content, and retransmission feels are in fact subsidizing OTA viewers.

There are certainly things Locast could do to mitigate things. For one, it could pay retransmission fees. While Locast is free, it does ask for a $5/month donation.  As of 2020 Locast was receiving enough in donations that it was sustainable, which suggests that it could soon be in a position to give some of that money to broadcasters – effectively paying a retransmission fee.

Locast could also collaborate with local broadcasters by providing the infrastructure for providing a live stream of the broadcaster’s signal. This might be particularly attractive to stations which do not already provide a live stream.  No doubt there might be some additional work to make the Locast live stream look like it was owned by the station, and things important to broadcasters like audience measurement would need to be considered. For those cases where a station already provides a live stream it is questionable whether Locast should be operating in the first place. But even if Locast were to stop, or not, provide a live stream services that overlap with a broadcasters, its service and application would still have tremendous value as aggregation service – one which allows users a single place to go to for local live streamed broadcasts, whether those streams are provided by Locast (on behalf of a station), or by the station itself.