David vs Goliath: Indian-American innovator takes on US TV big wigs

  • PTI, New York
  • Updated: Jan 20, 2014 21:59 IST

An Indian-American entrepreneur has developed a tiny antenna that grabs over-the-air television signals and streams them to consumers via Internet, an invention that has pitted him against the powerful US TV industry.

Chet Kanojia, whose company is emerging as a threat to broadcast networks like ABC, NBC and CBS, is now fighting a legal battle with them in the US Supreme Court.

Aereo allows subscribers to watch or record broadcast television through the Internet on any device, no wires or cable boxes required. It does this by assigning each consumer a remote antenna and a DVR.

The TV industry titans are intent on maintaining a system that provides billions in revenue annually. The networks have been fighting Aereo in court almost since its inception, claiming the service was stealing their content.

The Supreme Court will hear the case this month, a report in the New York Times said.

"The (court) decision will have far-reaching implications for a television industry already in upheaval, facing challenges from online streaming, Internet-enabled TVs, ad-skipping devices and, now, the tiny antennas that Aereo uses to capture broadcast signals," the report said.

Kanojia says he is optimistic of a Supreme Court ruling in his favour.

"I can't imagine they won't be on the side of innovation," he says, "cloud-based-innovation, in particular, because it is so consumer-friendly."

Brought up in Bhopal, Kanojia was a self-described "back bencher" in his youth, who spent too much time smoking and drinking and too little time studying in his hometown.

After earning an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in India, he came to the US and earned a master's in computer systems engineering from Northeastern University.

He sold his first company, Navic Systems, which made software that helped cable companies interact with their customers, to Microsoft in 2008 for a reported $250 million.

He simple ambition is to improve the world through technology, he says.

Kanojia says he is not driven by financial gains in his fight against the TV big-wigs.

"This is the first battleground for the next 50 years of how copyright is going to extend or apply to the Internet and the cloud," the NYT report quoted him as saying.

Entertainment companies feel Aereo is violating copyright and stealing their content.

Copyright law lets individuals watch anything they pick up by antennas as long as it is for their private use, but the broadcasters say Aereo’s transmissions constitute a "public performance" that requires Aereo to pay for retransmitting them.

If the court rules in Aereo's favour, networks fear that the cable and satellite companies that currently pay them huge retransmission fees might follow Aereo’s lead, destroying broadcasters bottom line.

Kanojia says the threat is overblown and that long-established retransmission fees will not disappear anytime soon.

While the big content providers would not be affected, the casualties would be the hundreds of channels that are barely watched but for which consumers still have to pay.

Kanojia's friends say it is "completely in character" for him to play down his hand, citing the example of the disastrous Union Carbide chemical leak in 1984 that killed thousands in Bhopal.

It emerges that as a teenager living in the spill’s aftermath, Kanojia was responsible for changing oxygen tanks for the dying, and would routinely discover dead bodies.

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