By Cecilia Kang and Robert Barnes

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — An obscure Internet start-up is roiling the television industry with an old-school technology: The antenna.

The start-up, Aereo, uses thousands of tiny antennas to capture broadcast television programs, then converts the shows into online video streams for subscribers in 11 cities.

What Aereo doesn’t do is pay licensing fees to the broadcast networks that produce the programs. And that has put Aereo at the center of a fierce debate over the reach of copyright laws, the accessibility of public airwaves and the future of TV.

This week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a civil case filed against the two-year-old private firm by ABC, CBS, NBC and other major broadcasters alleging that Aereo is no different from cable and satellite firms that are required to pay hefty fees to rebroadcast their shows.

“Quite simply, Aereo takes copyrighted material, profits from it and does so without compensating copyright holders,” said Gordon Smith, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

But Aereo argues that it is entitled to draw freely from programs transmitted on public airwaves — an argument that, if successful, has the potential to blow apart the expensive channel bundles that have been forced on American households and radically reduce the cost of watching television.

“Aereo has a shot at changing the TV business model,” said Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge and a former antitrust official at the Justice Department.

“Behind the technical and legal arguments of the case is a fundamental question of whether consumers will be able to take advantage of new technology to access programming in a convenient and low-cost fashion.”

An Aereo victory could dramatically change the way people watch their favorite programs. Live sports and other popular shows that are only available on broadcast TV or cable television could be accessed more conveniently and cheaply over the Internet. That could lead many consumers to cut the cable cord in favor of a much cheaper alternative: a broadband Internet connection and subscriptions to Aereo, Netflix and Hulu. The average price of basic cable is nearly $100 a month. Broadband Internet plus subscriptions to Aereo and Netflix is less than $60.

Washington residents Katrin Verclas and Bob Boorstin are eager for a way to cut their cable subscription, but they’ve kept it for baseball games and some other broadcast programs. They cringe at the thought of paying $130 a month for cable so Boorstin won’t miss Nationals baseball games.

With Aereo, baseball streaming site, and maybe another app, they would gladly use the Internet for all their video news and entertainment.

“I never watch TV — all online all the time,” Verclas said. “I’d rather spend money on faster Internet than hundreds of channels we never watch.”

The heart of the dispute

As legal teams for both sides prepare to make their arguments before the court today, analysts say it’s unclear which side will prevail. At the heart of the case is the question of whether Aereo violates a four-decades-old copyright law written during the birth of cable television.

That law prohibits the use of copyrighted material broadcast over public airwaves without the approval — and compensation — of its owner. But the law distinguishes between material used for “public” performances, shown to multiple people at once, and “private” performances, shown to a single individual.

When a cable company rebroadcasts an ABC show, it is offering a “public” performance and therefore must pay the network retransmission fees. But because licensing payments are not required for private performances, people without cable can continue to use antennas to capture and record over-the-air television programs for their personal viewing.

Aereo’s argument

Aereo argues that it is no more than an antenna rental service. Its customers pick the shows they want to watch and Aereo assigns them an antenna and positions it to capture the desired show from local airwaves. The shows are then transformed into digital streaming video for viewing on tablets, smartphones and laptops. That makes Aereo merely a mediator of “private” performances, the company argues, because each antenna rebroadcasts a show to just one subscriber.

“Consumers have the legal ability to access the public airwaves and they have the right to have their own antennas, which is what we are supplying,” said Aereo chief executive Chet Kanojia.

Subscribers still see the advertisements, Kanojia argued, so the company is not denying the networks their main source of revenue.

“Broadcasters can’t double dip,” he said. “They had the same complaints when the VCR came. The sky didn’t fall then, and in fact a huge business around VCRs and DVRs bloomed from that technology. The same will happen with our technology and the sky won’t fall on broadcasters today, either.”

The arguments against

In their two-year legal battle against Aereo, the networks have argued that the company transmits public performances and is therefore more like the cable and satellite firms that are required to pay retransmission fees. Retransmission fees have been a huge boon to broadcasters, reaching $3.3 billion last year. They are expected to nearly double over the next five years, growing to $7.6 billion, according to media research firm SNL Kagan.

With fortunes at stake, the case has drawn the passionate support and opposition of dozens of groups representing powerful technology and media firms, consumer advocates and even the Obama administration, which has weighed in on the side of the broadcasters.

Aereo “transmits copyrighted broadcast programs to the public, without the authorization of the copyright holders, and is therefore liable for infringement,” the Obama administration said in a brief filed in support of the networks.

Smaller cable companies, on the other hand, are backing Aereo. They hope to partner with the firm or create similar technologies that would enable them to compete more effectively with bigger cable companies. The satellite firm Dish Network compares Aereo’s antennas to dumbwaiters that simply act on a human’s commands.

Their support has raised fears that copycat businesses would emerge if the court sides with Aereo. A decision isn’t likely before the court’s term ends in June.

“It would open the floodgates to more copyright being violated, and free and local television being undermined,” Smith said. Broadcasters have vowed to fight an adverse decision in the halls of Congress, seeking to stop companies like Aereo through legislation if litigation fails.

Funded by IAC Chairman Barry Diller, Aereo currently operates in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Dallas, among other locations. The company hopes to eventually expand nationwide.

But Diller has said Aereo is unlikely to survive if it doesn’t win the case. And given the solicitor general’s surprisingly strong support for broadcasters, media and telecom analyst David Kaut said the justices may lean heavily on the government’s position that Aereo operates much like a cable firm and should be subject to the same obligations.

“Ultimately,” Kaut said, “it may come down to a ‘it looks like duck and quacks like a duck’ decision.”