Locast is the free TV streaming service that refuses to die

Let’s say you want to watch local TV channels in your area but you get crummy reception on your HDTV antenna. Unfortunately for you, there goes your only free option. You now have a choice: Pay a cable or satellite company a monthly fee for that content, or pay one of the big live TV streaming services like YouTube TV, Hulu + Live TV, or AT&T TV Now. Either way, those broadcasts that you would have gotten for free if only your antenna reception was better are now only watchable if you pay. Or are they?

If you happen to live in one of the 17 cities in which Locast operates, you can watch your local TV broadcasters for free, over the internet, no antenna or subscription required. But what is Locast? What does it do (and how is it allowed to do it)? 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 17 select cities. Locast is operated by Sports Fans Coalition NY, and its founder is David Goodfriend, a lawyer and a former executive at satellite TV provider Dish Network.

How does Locast work?

Watching livestreaming 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, TiVo, 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. There’s no DVR capability for recording, and no on-demand shows — just live TV.

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 nonlocal stations.

Isn’t this just like Aereo?

Aereo iPad App

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 that 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 YouTube TV 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.

Will Locast be able to avoid Aereo’s fate?

ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox view Locast’s service the same way they viewed Aereo’s. In July 2019, they began the same legal strategy by suing Locast.  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 billions.

Locast’s response to the broadcasters’ suit is a countersuit that it launched in September 2019.  The countersuit not only denies any wrongdoing, but it also argues that “the big broadcasters have ‘colluded’ as part of an effort to undermine and shut down Locast by ‘threatening business retaliation’ against any potential partners,” according to The New York Times. The Big Four have asked that Locast’s antitrust claims be dismissed, but so far, there have been no hearings in any of the legal actions.

Locast’s defense

Needless to say, fighting a court battle with opponents that have billions at stake (and millions to spend) won’t be cheap. In December 2019, Locast launched a GoFundMe campaign to get some help with its legal expenses. Since then, it has raised just over $13,000 of its $500,000 goal.

Locast’s defense is to position itself 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

How and why is AT&T involved?

Robert Wilson/123rf

The other thing that caught the Big Four’s attention was AT&T’s support for Locast. In May 2019, AT&T added the free Locast app to its DirecTV and U-verse receivers. In June 2019, 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.

Locast claims that AT&T’s financial support is small when compared to the value of the donations it receives from individuals.

Will Locast survive?

Despite its looming legal jeopardy, Locast isn’t slowing down. The courts are letting it continue operations pending the outcome of the lawsuits. It recently hit 1 million registered users, and now operates in 17 different cities. With that footprint, it has the ability to serve 41 million TV homes, or 36% of the U.S. market, according to a MediaPost report.

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the organization can make the claim that in helping American voters access their local broadcasters, it is providing a valuable and needed service. In fact, it began operations in Sioux City, Iowa, in February 2020, just days before that state held its Democratic party caucus.

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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