Sling TV from DISH Network may be adding access to over-the-air channels with a new AirTV box. It is reported that AirTV will tune to local broadcast channels and stream them to devices that have the Sling TV app. Supposed plans for the product emerged as the White House backed a proposal from the Federal Communications Commission to open up set-top boxes to more competition.
The AirTV box has apparently been developed by EchoStar, a sister company to DISH Network, based on its Slingbox technology. Slingbox was originally developed by Sling Media to relay video to remote devices. EchoStar acquired the company in 2007.
DISH Network adopted the Sling brand for its SlingTV online television service, which launched in February 2015. A year later it was reported that Sling TV had around 600,000 subscribers. That was not enough to prevent DISH losing 81,000 subscribers overall in 2015, ending the year with 13.90 million.
SlingTV offers streaming packages that include some local channels but negotiating rights for channels in every market has proved problematic for companies aiming to offer online television services in the United States. So far it seems to have defeated companies like Google and Apple.
Receiving locally broadcast free-to-air channels through an antenna could potentially enable SlingTV to incorporate them without negotiating rights or paying retransmission fees.
That could upset some broadcasters, although DISH may be used to that. Its commercial skipping Hopper digital video recorder was the subject of legal action from broadcast networks. Dish settled the suits through commercial negotiations over channel carriage agreements.
Interestingly, a company called Channel Master already offers a digital video recorder that connects to a television antenna, including a flat indoor device. That box also happens to be made by EchoStar and it happens to integrate with Sling TV to offer an additional line-up of pay channels available online by subscription.
The concept of streaming local channels as an online service was popularised by Aereo, which used a central array of micro antennae to receive over the air channels. That initiative was effectively shut down by legal action. The Supreme Court held that the service was effectively operating as cable system.
AirTV appears to avoid the issue of looking like a cable system by using a normal antenna at the home. That still presents a practical challenge for people who seem strangely unaware that they can still receive over the air television through an antenna.
The legality of redistributing channels received in this way remains unclear. Sling Media managed to get away with it but possibly only because broadcasters and networks did not wish to set a legal precedent of fair use if they were unsuccessful in challenging its legality.
A move to open up the cable box market has received support from President Obama. He has called on the Federal Communications Commission to open up set-top cable boxes to competition, as part of a wider move to promote innovation and address anticompetitive conduct.
In February, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, tabled proposals to open up pay-television services to smart televisions and tablets. Pay-television providers, including DISH Network, immediately opposed the move.
The Future of TV Coalition suggested that the White House is pandering to companies like Google. It said: “The Google proposal the White House endorsed today will box consumers into yesterday’s technology and impede the innovation consumers so desperately want.”
It is unusual but not unprecedented for the President to comment on pending proposals from the FCC, an independent agency. He previously backed proposals for net neutrality.
He may be one of the most powerful people in the world, but nearing the end of his term of office, it seems unlikely that even the President of the United States can do much to open the pay-television box.
Whether AirTV will succeed in bringing broadcast channels to broadband networks without retransmission consent and consequent fees is another matter.