An Antenna-Connected Cable Set-Top Still Won't Fly

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Over-the-air TV is free. So why should cable, satellite or telco operators pay anything to offer broadcast TV stations to their customers? Just give ‘em an antenna, right?

Reality, unfortunately, is more complicated.

Boxee has run a version of this idea up the antenna pole again. The Internet-video startup is selling a $49 USB stick with a TV tuner and antenna, which plugs into a Boxee-based set-top. Presto: instant live TV, mixed in with a bunch of Web video. (Boxee is promoting the over-the-air dongle with the tagline: “Still Spending Too Much on Cable TV?” Never mind that regular digital TV antennas are available for less.)

Now Boxee claims it has landed deals with some small cable operators, which intend to get out of the TV business altogether and simply offer over-the-air TV and Internet video, according to FierceCable.

It’s an interesting idea, but most cable companies aren’t going to chuck their video services out the window.

Meanwhile, there would be a number of issues if MSOs attached an antenna to their set-tops and told broadcasters to pound sand — an idea the industry has already considered.

In 2007, CableLabs initiated a project to develop cable interface specifications “for receipt of off-air digital broadcast signals” (see Trying to Beat Broadcast Over the Ears). Motorola, at the 2007 Cable Show in Las Vegas, even demonstrated two set-tops with over-the-air receivers — one with a plug-in USB antenna that looked a lot like the Boxee dongle, in fact (see Motorola Demos Set-Tops).

But an antenna-connected set-top doesn’t make sense for cable operators.

First is the practical matter of supporting existing customers: Millions of people rely on their pay-TV provider to deliver the local TV networks. It would be extremely disruptive (and expensive) to equip everyone in a market with OTA antennas. Boxee doesn’t have this problem, since it has never offered traditional TV.

Next, there are many areas where you can’t get a good digital TV signal. “Your DTV reception can be affected by terrain, trees, buildings, the weather, damaged equipment, as well as antenna type, location and orientation,” according to the FCC. This, by the way, was the very reason the cable TV industry started: to haul signals to people who couldn’t get them over the air.

Finally, broadcasters would not allow the pay-TV operators to offer their signals as part of a subscription bundle without payment: They would sue. So a cable operator wouldn’t be able to include the OTA channels in a guide or let subscribers record them with a DVR, for example: a pretty bad customer experience.

Long story short: There’s no feasible rabbit-eared technology end-run around those nasty retrans fights.

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