What is Locast and why is it being sued by the Big Four broadcasters?

Until this week, few people were taking about Locast — and most hadn’t even heard of it. Then the Big Four broadcasters joined forces to sue the streaming service. Now folks are asking questions. What is Locast? What does it do? Why are ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox gunning for it in the courts — and what’s this about AT&T being involved somehow? We’ll tell you everything you need to know about Locast and whether it’s worth checking out.

What is Locast?

Locast is a nonprofit organization created in 2018 that redistributes terrestrial over-the-air TV broadcasts online. The service is free, though the group’s website is set up to take donations. At the moment, Locast only operates in the U.S., and only in select cities. Locast is operated by Sports Fans Coalition NY, and its founder is David Goodfriend, a lawyer and former executive at satellite TV provider Dish Network.

How does Locast work?

what is locast local tv online broadcaster screen shot

Watching live-streaming TV using Locast is easy. You can use the organization’s website, which has a built-in web-based viewer, or you can download and install one of the free Locast apps available for iOS, tvOS, Android, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Roku. To begin streaming on any of these platforms, you’ll need to create a free Locast account.

When you sign in to the service, it will show you a TV guide display with the over-the-air channels available in your specific market. Clicking or tapping on any currently airing show will give you a brief description and the option to start watching.

Can I watch any TV station?

No. Because Locast is intended as a way for people to receive their local, over-the-air broadcasts without the use of an antenna or a cable/satellite subscription, you can only watch the channels you’d normally be able to access through these traditional means. Although in theory these geofenced broadcast limitations could be overcome using a VPN, Locast is not designed to give viewers access to non-local stations.

Isn’t this just like Aereo?

Aereo was a live TV streaming service that, starting in 2012, provided a very similar platform: You could sign up for a dollar per day, and get internet-based streaming access to local over-the-air broadcasts. Though the technology used to run Aereo is different from Locast, the result is essentially the same. The biggest difference is that Locast does not charge viewers to access these redistributed broadcasts. The biggest similarity is that Aereo didn’t pay the broadcasters they redistributed a carriage fee and neither does Locast. Carriage fees are the revenue that companies like CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox usually make from having their content distributed by cable, satellite, and live TV streaming services like Sony’s PlayStation Vue and AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now). The Big Four took Aereo to court, and the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against Aereo, a loss that led to its downfall.

Why is Locast being sued by the Big Four broadcasters?

ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox view Locast’s service the same way they viewed Aereo’s. Though they acknowledge that U.S. law makes provisions for nonprofits to redistribute broadcast signals, they don’t think Locast’s model is what these provisions had in mind when they were created to help those living in rural or urban areas receive local broadcast signals. In essence, the Big Four see Locast as a commercial entity, even though Locast has positioned itself as a nonprofit. If Locast can effectively usurp the carriage fee model by providing viewers with a free and easy way to watch their local stations without a cable or satellite subscription, or even so much as an antenna, the big broadcasters stand to lose millions.

Locast for its part is touting itself very much as a public service, in keeping with the law’s allowances for limited types of redistribution, “except instead of an over-the-air signal transmitter, we provide the local broadcast signal via online streaming,” according to the organization’s About page. Locast turned down our interview request for this article, pointing us instead to its public statement:

“Locast is an independent, nonprofit organization that provides a public service retransmitting free over-the-air broadcasts. Its activities are expressly permitted under the Copyright Act. The fact that no broadcasters have previously filed suit for more than a year and a half suggests that they recognize this. We look forward to defending the claims — and the public’s right to receive transmissions broadcast over the airwaves — in litigation.” – David Hosp, counsel to Locast

Why is Locast being sued now?

When The New York Times wrote about Locast and Goodfriend in January, Locast had been operating for about a year. Goodfriend told the newspaper that he would welcome a legal challenge from the networks. At that time, journalist Edmund Lee asked the rhetorical question, “The networks’ dilemma: Sue or ignore?”

We asked a representative of the Big Four why they had chosen the ignore route until now. We were told that while Locast had not escaped their attention when it began making its service available, it was still a very small operation, limited to just New York City, and characterized by Goodfriend as a “thought experiment.”

“Ignore” became “sue” when Locast’s reach began to grow well beyond its humble roots. At the moment, Locast operates in 13 major markets and claims it can reach over 13 million U.S. households. Locast is no longer a thought experiment but a very real alternative to antennas and, to some degree, cable and satellite.

How and why is AT&T involved?

The other thing that caught the Big Four’s attention was AT&T’s support for Locast. In May, AT&T added the free Locast app to its DirecTV and U-verse receivers. In June, the company announced a $500,000 donation to the organization. These moves came at the same time that AT&T was locked in a heated contract negotiation with CBS over the aforementioned carriage fees. In the past, failed talks have led to blackouts, or the temporary removal of channels from cable and satellite services, leaving some viewers without any way to watch them. AT&T’s seemingly wholehearted backing of a service that would give its customers access to local broadcasters without costing AT&T any carriage fees was apparently the last straw for the Big Four, and the lawsuit against Locast was filed.

Will Locast survive?

It’s hard to say how the courts will handle this case. Locast and Goodfriend firmly believe that the organization’s status as a nonprofit affords it protection from the copyright infringement charges that ultimately brought down Aereo. “We really did our homework,” Goodfriend told The New York Times. “We are operating under parameters that are designed to be compliant within the law.”

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